Slow Cookers

The slow food movement took hold in Italy, back in 1989, and it’s been chugging along ever since. The initial focus was, “food that’s good for us, good for our environment and good for the people who grow, pick and prepare it. In other words, food that is good, clean and fair,” all inarguably good stuff. The movement has branched out somewhat in the intervening twenty seven years, and as such, it was inevitable that cookware would also become a part of the deal, and indeed it has – In recent years, what we cook in and how we cook it has garnered every bit as much attention as the food itself.

In the late ’90’s, cookware began one of its greatest evolutions to date. Home cooks found themselves able to buy stuff far superior to the schlock that had ruled the roost previously. One of the very early deal makers in this regard was All Clad‘s Emerilware, a full 11 piece set of which M and It bought in 2002 for less than what a single top of the line All Clad stock pot was going for. Why so cheap? Well, made in China rather than the U.S., frankly, and some minor metallurgical tweaks. That said, they’re still multi-layer steel, aluminum and copper bottoms bonded to stainless bodies – Fourteen years later, they show obvious signs of heavy use, but they’re in perfect working order with years left on them.

Then, as the slow food movement penetrated other parts of the world, this trend toward high-end cookware took an interesting turn as well – a one hundred and eighty degree U turn, to be exact. Suddenly, cast iron was back in vogue, both raw, from venerable makers like Lodge, (who’ve been casting cookware since 1896), and in the considerably pricier enameled iteration, and the most famous version thereof, made by French manufacturer Le Creuset – They’ve been around since 1925, and are still going strong. The fact is, you can’t go wrong with cast iron – The only crime you can commit in this regard is to not have any in your kitchen. For my mind, a cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven are not optional, and that’s sage advice, if I do say so myself.

Straw Box - The original slow cooker.
Straw Box – The original slow cooker.

Then the venerable crock pot got a make over, and the electric slow cooker caught fire as well. While the name brand crock pot is a child of the 1970s, the roots of the cooking method go back way further yet, to what was, and is still called a straw box. As you can see from the picture, this is nothing more than some form of box big enough to fit a slow cooker like a Dutch oven, with room enough to allow a nice, thick layer of straw to be piled all around the cooker. Foods heated in the Dutch oven are stuffed into the straw box and left alone for the day – The latent heat of the food in the well insulated box finishes the cooking in a nice, slow manner – Its great for cassoulets and such.

The Römertopf - Almost too pretty to cook in.
The Römertopf – Almost too pretty to cook in.

And lately, the clay cooker has made a resurgence as well, with venerable makers like Römertopf from Germany offering a wide range of fired clay cookware that’s not only fun to use, but quite lovely, (When I climbed aboard the clay cooker train for the writing of this piece, M noted that “it’s too pretty to cook in,” and it darn near is!) Cooking in clay might just signify the farthest back that we can practically go in pursuit of the good old days – It’s been done for thousands of years, and by cultures from literally all around the globe.

Thus we come to the Big Question at hand – How much, if any of this stuff do you actually need?

Let me answer that with a story. A friend of mine used to own a music store. I was there one day buying an amplifier, and he mentioned that he had some really nice Fender Stratocasters that I, “needed to take a look at.”
As we admired the guitars, I noted, “Well, they’re pretty, but I already got two Strats and a Tele – I don’t really need another one.” He looked at me as if I was the dumbest human he’d ever layer eyes on, sneered slightly and retorted, “What the hell does ‘need’ have to do with another Strat?!” And there you have it, in a nutshell.

How many knives do you really need? Two or three really will do. How many pots and pans? Well, that’s more complicated, and it depends on how much cooking you do and want to do – Realistically, I think anything less than a couple of sauce pans, a couple of sauté pans, and at least one big stock pot just won’t cut the mustard. How many and what kind of slow cooker you need is also complicated. If you have a good, cast iron Dutch oven, truth be told you probably don’t need anything else, but you may want more, and rightly so.

That single Dutch oven is versatile as all get out. From stove top, to oven, to camp fire, it can and will do it all, and a good quality oven will be something that you pass on to your kids and their kids after them – There’s much to be said for those qualities, and that’s why I’ll stand by the assertion above – If you only have one, I’d choose a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven and be most content, indeed.

What then, about enameled cast iron versus plain? My answer will be blasphemous to some, but I’ll stick by it – I’ve owned more than one piece of Le Creuset, and two Lodge Dutch ovens. I don’t own any Le Creuset currently, because all of the pieces we have went through the process of enamel chipping from the bottom, and were eventually retired – With regret, I’ll add, because Le Creuset is beautiful stuff. Now, let me interject that, were you to buy Le Creuset stuff new, you’ll find that it comes with a limited lifetime warranty, and while there are caveats and requirements, I know more than a few folks who have either gotten a brand new replacement for free, or a significant discount on same – In other words, Le Creuset not only makes a kick ass pot, they’re still a most honorable company.

Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips...
Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips…

That said, the enamel is pretty, and will cut down on some preventive maintenance on your part, but you’ll pay for those premiums – Le Creuset is fabulously expensive, just like those top end All Clad stock pots – A lodge Dutch oven like ours will set you back around $40, and their enameled version will run you about $60 – That same size of Le Creuset costs $300 – Get the picture? Me, I’m OK with the maintenance – It’s why I have my knives made with high carbon blades instead of stainless – It’s about feel, and performance, and frankly, I’m OK with maintaining my stuff – That’s how I know how it’s doing in general. Oh, and for the record, I still own my Lodge Dutch oven, and the second one was gifted to my Sis, who was without and therefore in need.

And electric slow cookers, what about ’em? Well, the need factor is kinda like those Strats… Slow cookers are handy as all get out, and they’ve come a long way. Programmability, multiple cooking temps and profiles, and much higher quality cooking vessels and insulating materials have made these toys, errr – tools, a very attractive option. If you’re of a mind to make a soup or stew, cassoulet or roast, and want it to go all day low and slow, you’ll spend less energy doing so, and likely be much safer in using a slow cooker, as opposed to leaving an unattended oven or range in all day. Our Frigidaire Professional series 7 quart cooker cost about $60, and I highly recommend it.

The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker
The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker

And what about those clay cookers? While most of the world has been cooking in clay for millennia, many people in this country got their introduction back in the ’70s, when a British firm called Habitat introduced The Chicken Brick to America. On sale in Britain since 1964, the brick is a vaguely chicken shaped, unglazed terra-cotta cooker made in England by Weston Mills Pottery. The brick worked, and worked well, but it was kinda gimmicky, so a lot of folks got one as a wedding or Christmas gift, and then never actually used the silly thing. All that aside, the recent resurgence in interest regarding cooking in clay has spurred a revival – While Habitat discontinued sales of the Chicken Brick back in 2008, they’ve recently come to their senses and are again offering this iconic cooker.

The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta
The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta

While the brick as made of unglazed terra-cotta, the stuff offered by Römertopf and a few other German makers is glazed clay. In either iteration, there are some things you must and must not do when cooking in these vessels, and that frankly is what caused a whole bunch of folks to never even try to use that wedding gift. Clay cookers cook in large part by steam heat, and that means you need to soak the whole cooker in water for 15 to 20 minutes before you load food into it.

Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.
Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.

Next, it’s best not to load cold foods into a clay cooker, so you’ll also have to get your bird or roast or whatever out of the fridge for long enough to allow it to get fairly close to room temperature. And clay cookers don’t do well in preheated ovens – That can lead to cracks, and cracks are bad – So you need to load that bird into that cooker and into a cold oven. This means that you actually will cook at a higher temperature than you normally roast at – With our Römertopf, we cook chicken at 450° F for about an hour, whereas regular roasting gets done at 350° F or thereabouts. Next caveat – You can’t take a clay cookers out of a hot oven and set it directly on a cold countertop – Doing so risks cracks, and again, they’re bad… Finally, you can’t clean a clay cookers with soap, and for the same reasons, (its porous, yeah?), you don’t really want to cook fish in one unless you’re not going to cook anything but fish in thereafter, because it’s got a memory like an elephant.

The Römertopf cooker - Made from glazed clay
The Römertopf cooker – Made from glazed clay

Right about now, a fair chunk of you are thinking, “OK, Eben – What you’ve just done is convinced me that this clay cookers thing is a major pain in the ass, so why in hell would I put myself through all that just to cook a damn chicken?!

The answer is that the chicken you cook in that pain in the ass clay cooker will be the juiciest, tenderest, moistest chicken you’ve ever cooked. M said so, the very first time I used the Römertopf, and she was right. A clay cooker becomes a small, very efficient, very moist cooking environment, and without any other adjuncts whatsoever, it passes that moisture on to what you’re cooking. Römertopf makes cookers from quite small to large enough for a full sized turkey – we bought a medium size, which has a stated size of slightly over 3 quarts, and cost fifty bucks – Not cheap, but as you can see, this is a well made and truly beautiful thing – Almost too pretty to cook in, as M noted. What it fits is pretty much the fattest local chicken you can find, but not much else – I quickly found that our cooker truly wouldn’t hold anything else, which initially made me nervous, because I come from the mire poix in the bottom of a Dutch oven with some chicken stock school of roasting. What I found out is exactly what all the makers of clay cookers tell you – You don’t need anything in that cooker to make an incredible, notable chicken – The cooker will do the magic – And indeed, it does. I stuffed that bird with apple, fennel, onion, and some fresh herbs. Cooked it at 450° F for an hour, then popped the top off for about 10 minutes to let the bird brown. Pulled it out, put it in a towel on the counter top, gave it a 10 minute rest, and dug in.

Clay cooked chicken - 'nuff said.
Clay cooked chicken – ’nuff said.

It was, as noted, an incredible chicken, but let’s face it – I bought this cooker to write this post, and as good as that chicken was, it could have been a fluke, so I did the scientific thing – I bought another chicken a week later, did all the proper prep, but this time, I did nothing other than to throw that bird into the Römertopf with a tiny bit of olive oil rubbed on the skin, followed by our signature seasoned salt blend and fresh ground pepper – Didn’t stuff it, didn’t tie it, nothin’ – Just cooked the bugger, and…

Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!
Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!

It was the best damn chicken I ever made, hands down, bar none, no bullshit.

So, now – What do you need?

PLEASE NOTE!

Have now had quite a few of you ask if I was biased/bought for the purposes of this piece. Those who’ve asked are quite new here, so it’s a fair question. Here’s our answer –

We have never accepted any ingredient or article for free or any kind of reduced price in exchange for a favorable review, and we never will.

We have far more than enough followers and readers to warrant the ability to run ads on this blog, and to receive deals such as I just described – Again, we’ve never done any of that, and never will.

This is a completely independent blog, and everything you see here is bought by us at full retail price from the same places you can get yours. We’re about helping folks discover new things, becoming more food independent, and making from scratch everything that you can, period.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Garde Manger for the People

Alert blog follower Hannah sent this note from southwestern Oregon – ‘I read about you guys changing up stuff you made earlier, for subsequent meals – The last one was an Instagram of tacos where you did “a complete 180° on the seasoning” but you didn’t explain how or what you did. The same thing happened with the Chinese barbecued pork you converted to Italian, but you didn’t tell how to do that either. We’re not all wizards, so you need to explain this better!’

Hannah, with my sincere apologies, you are absolutely correct. Allow me to rectify that – And if it seems like Hannah’s reading me the riot act, she’s got a right to – I didn’t explain any of that stuff. Now, in my defense, these were both follow up images and short descriptives, secondary to a post, that as she mentioned, were on other social media sites – FB, Instagram, Twitter and the like. I though of them as throw away stuff, home food porn, but no longer – Hannah is 100% right – If I’m gonna crow about our mad skills, I gotta share the goods.

Before we talk about conversion, we gotta back up a few steps. If you’re making a French dish, what should the core seasonings be? What if it’s Italian, Spanish, Indian, North African, Mexican, South American, Caribbean, and so on? There are so many regional variations in all those examples that this kind of thing can be a bit hard to pin down – In northern France, you might find thyme, sage, and coriander, while in the south, it’s likely to be something more Provençal – marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and lavender, maybe. Same thing in every place I mentioned, frankly. With the very welcome spread of cookbooks and recipes focusing more on regional cuisines than some perceived national pastiche, us home cooks are blessed with many more options than even a decade ago. All that can make things a bit tougher to convert to something wholly different, but frankly, we don’t need to do that to succeed at the game.

Pork rib tacos? Absolutely! Pork rib tacos? Absolutely!

So what is the trick to turning those ribs into tacos? Not as much as you’d think – Hell, you could probably do not a damn thing, call it fusion, and be on your merry way… But seriously, the trick, such as it is, is simply knowing what the major and minor seasoning notes are for the thing you’re working with, and building up or down from there – I say up or down purposefully, because if you want something Chinese to taste reasonable Italian, the task at hand may be to add, but it could also involve subtraction. Let’s use those two examples Hannah cited to dig into this thing.

In both instances we’re talking about proteins. This comes up as a thing we tweak fairly often because of how we cook and plan meals – A big ol’ batch of poultry, pork, or beef is oft what we cook early in the week, and then make a buncha meals thereafter, (and we covered this pretty well in our Meal Planning post btw). First step in swinging the seasoning profile of a protein in another direction is having a pretty good grasp of what’s powering it currently. If you made it, that’s easy enough, but what about a leftover from somewhere else, or taking a step farther out – tasting something and thinking, ‘I could do this at home, and I’d like to’ – How do you parse that? Far and away, the easiest way to suss it out is to ask the Chef – Chances are good they’ll tell you, and then you’re off to the races.

But what about sleuthing things out for yourself, how does that work? There’s no cut and dried formula for doing this that I can think of offhand, other than to state the obvious – The more herbs, spices and other seasoning constituents you own and use with some frequency, the better you’ll be at identifying them in the wild – Consider it a delicious form of behavioral conditioning. Again, not everybody has the same palate, but nonetheless, practice makes perfect, so build a great pantry and familiarize yourself with as much as you can – Getting curious about world cuisine is the way to discover new tastes and combinations.

OK, so Hannah’s Bane – starting with the ribs to tacos. The ribs were a first run experiment by M from something she’d found and tweaked to her liking – Ribs done in the slow cooker, with a nontraditional twist on the marinade and sauce. She did, for two racks of ribs,

For the Rib Marinade

1/2 Cup Water

1/3 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar

1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, minced

6 Cloves fresh Garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Yellow Mustard

2 Tablespoons coarse Sea Salt

2 teaspoons Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

For the Glaze

1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon Arrowroot

1/2 teaspoon Chile flake

Pinch of Sea Salt

They were killer by the way – Try this on nice fresh baby backs and then thank M later. We had a slew of these things, and after 3 days of ribs, ribs, and ribs, we were kinda tired of that, so I decided to strip all the meat off the remainder and turn it into taco fodder. Now, looking at that ingredients list, you can see right off that I took poetic license with the line Hannah quoted, “a complete 180° on the seasoning,” ‘cause yeah – in a word, Eben? Bullshit. That’s already pretty damn close to a bunch of Mexican regional seasoning blends you’ve got on there. What I did was to throw diced chiles and more onion in a sauté pan, sweat them, then added chicken stock, cilantro, lime juice, and tomatoes to the mix, and let that simmer until everything was heated through and married – Boom, taco ribs. Get the picture? No, they won’t taste at all like they did as whole ribs, and yeah, now they are reasonably more Mexican in taste profile.

Char Siu in all its glory Char Siu in all its glory

Now, how about that Chinese barbecued Pork to Italian thing, then? This one admittedly took a bit more work to pull off effectively, but nothing earthshaking, and again – I made the original dish, so I knew exactly what was in there, right? The pork was my latest swing at Char Siu, derived from a Grace Young recipe in Breath of a Wok. I’ve not posted this previously, so here’s first look for y’all, (and John Joyce? This one’s for you, Buddy!)

For each Pound of Pork Shoulder

2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce (I recommend Pearl River)

2 Tablespoons Tamari

2 Tablespoons Hoisin Sauce

2 Tablespoons Pixian Doubanjiang Chile Bean Sauce

2 Tablespoons Shao Hsing Rice Wine

2 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 teaspoons Sesame Oil

1/2 teaspoon Ground Grains of Paradise

The Pork marinates in this mix for 48 hours, then is seared over an initially hot grill, basted with the remaining sauce and finished on a medium grill until internal temp runs 145°, then rested. If you use charcoal, a two zone grill set up will do this to perfection.

Seriously tender Char Siu Seriously tender Char Siu

This stuff was fork tender and incredibly tasty, but again, after so many meals, I just needed to switch things up, and so I decided to make tomato based pasta sauce with the remainder. Granted, there are some potent Chinese regional tastes involved in that pork, but again, it’s not as discordant as it may seem at first glance. Central and northern Italian tomato pasta sauces can and do have some of those warm, earthy, and spicy notes, albeit not the same ones.

I gave the pork a quick rinse and ground it with the attachment on my Kitchenaid mixer, (you don’t need to do that, a simple rinse and mince would do just fine). As you can see from the plated image, the marinade, even after 48 hours, doesn’t get all that deep into the pork, so doing what you can to expose a bunch of the unseasoned meat gives solid ground for new flavors – The old stuff becomes interesting background that you can’t quite put your finger on, rather than a very forward Chinese.

Italian from Chinese? Yes indeed. Italian from Chinese? Yes indeed.

Next comes the Italian rebranding – A big stew pot over medium heat, with a generous slug of olive oil gets soffritto – the classic Italian aromatic base mix of onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic. Add stock, tomatoes, the pork, bay leaf, oregano, rosemary, lemon thyme, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper, and basil to finish, and wham, you’ve got a complex, earthy pasta sauce that tastes like you put far more work into it than you did – Never a bad thing.

Now, who caught the trick I used in these examples? Somebody, anybody, Bueller? There was one ya know – A small but potent anchor to all such conversions – It’s the aromatic bases. For the switch to tacos, it was onion and chile. For the Italian, soffritto – See that? Fortunately for you, we wrote a very nice piece on aromatic bases that you can use as a launching pad for further exploration. It really is a key – When you take those deep, fundamental roots of a flavor profile and set them as your new solid base, switching gears becomes a simple matter of preference thereafter.

Now, resources – A thing I’ve mentioned here several times and online a lot – Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s magnum opus, The Flavor Bible. This is a reference work with some serious horsepower – Whole menus can be worked up from the stuff therein, and should be – For my mind, with that book, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, you’ve got a very solid basic research library to design a world cuisine of your own from.

Garde Manger - The Art of Transformation Garde Manger – The Art of Transformation

Now – One final note – This concept is not mine, and it’s not new. In fact, it’s very old, and it stems from common sense, first and foremost. In French, it’s called Garde Manger, and it loosely translates as ‘Keeper of the Food.’ This is way cooler than you can imagine if you really dig cooking. The first fine dining restaurant I worked in, back in the mid ‘70’s, was French, (and that cuisine is where the term comes from and from where, arguably, the art reached its pinnacle). The second was in Sun Valley, Idaho – Another kitchen run by French Chefs. In those places, the Chef de Garde Manger was the best there was – Old guys with a wealth of experience, tremendous patience, and endless inventiveness. Garde manger is still around, albeit not as prominent, or as likely to display that level of experience. It’s always the cold dish station – Salads, hors d’œuvres (horse doovers as my Sis and I like to quip…), appetizers, canapés, pâtés, terrines, and such. Although it’s less prevalent now, the key role of that Chef was transforming leftovers into something new, something appealing, something that would sell – And it was magical, indeed – That spirit is sparked within me every time I do something like we discussed today. If any of this strikes your fancy, then I’ll recommend another great resource – Frederick Sonnenschmidt and John Nicolas’, The Art of Garde Manger – It’s the real deal, and a delightful read. Dig in.

Spring Cleaning Your Freezer

For 25 points, identify the following protein:

Didn’t think so…

Spring is the perfect time for deep cleaning. Shaking off the dust and cold and mold of winter, letting fresh air in – We do it to our homes, (hopefully), and we need to do it to our freezers as well.

Whether you’ve got just a small one attached to your fridge, or a stand alone unit, it’s time to thoroughly clean that beast, inventory what’s there with a critical eye, toss what needs to be tossed and cook what must be cooked before that too goes to the great beyond.

This line of reasoning naturally brooks the question, “Can food go bad in the freezer?” The answer to which is a definite ‘Yup!’

Keep in mind that freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast, mold, etc –  it just pretty much keeps them from multiplying. If there was something funky present prior to freezing, it could indeed reappear when thawed. Additionally, freezing does not do any favors for food quality or taste – over time, great stuff will become good and good stuff becomes that image up yonder.

Before we abandon the ‘how long’ question for the stuff in the freezer, let’s review – When does quality starts to degrade? That depends on what it is, and how well it was packaged, frankly. For answers to this and other freezer questions, hop on over to the USDA’s Food Safety site and read for yourself. You’ll also find the National Center For Home Food Preservation a wealth of good info, so scope that out too.

In general terms, anything that looks like the image above – an obvious victims of freezer burn due to poor packaging, needs to go. If flesh looks substantially different than it usually does when thawed, (Darker, off color, dried out, etc), then you should give it the heave ho. Trust me when I say if it looks funky, it’ll taste funky, and it could well be dangerous.

When you package for freezing, head back to the NCHFP site and read up on best practices.

The time to clear out your freezer is also the time to clean the bugger; this should be done at least annually, (and twice is better yet.) The best time do the deed is when stocks are low – AKA, the end of winter.

Pull everything out and put it into a fridge or cooler(s) while you clean.

Turn off, unplug, and thoroughly defrost your unit.

Once it’s to room temp, clean the insides thoroughly; I like a bleach solution for the job, but dish soap and water works fine too. Remove and clean all the shelves, racks, drawers, etc as well.

Do a rinse wipe with a solution of 2 Tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, then wipe that down with a clean, dry cloth.

Don’t forget the unseen parts! Pull the freezer from it’s normal locale and clean underneath. Inspect the back and clean that as well, (And the top), and dust the coils if your unit has exposed ones.

If you don’t already have one, buy a decent but cheap inside-the-unit thermometer and place in an easy to see spot. Our commercial units have thermometers on them, usually digital, but we don’t trust those; every unit, reach in or walk in, has a stand alone thermometer inside it.

Optimal freezer temp for food storage is -15ºF to -5ºF; it should never go above 15ºF for any extended length of time.

Fire ‘er back up, let it get fully cold and then put your bounty back in. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for the same time next year.

OK, that about covers it – now go have a celebratory beer or two, you deserve it.

Creative Meal Planning

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

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

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

A good herb and spice collection feeds creativity

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

Stock and portioned proteins make quick meals easy

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

Vinegar, oil, and sauces add tremendous options

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

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

Mise en place is a must!

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

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

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

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

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

Dueling Roasts

Pot roast – arguably the epitome of a humble beginning becoming a glorious end – a paean to low and slow. Yet there’s more than one way to get there, and naturally we’d like to know if one is better than another.

In our kitchen, I prefer a slow cooker and M leans toward oven. When discussing which route to go recently, we naturally arrived at, why not both? Now, we ain’t Kenji Alt Lopez, but hey, it sounded like fun – and when she guaranteed me I’d lose the bet, it was on. We took two lovely local, grass fed pot roasts out and got busy.

‘Pot roast’ may be any one of a number of different cuts
‘Pot roast’ may be any one of a number of different cuts

Certain proteins just need to be cooked low and slow. Sure, a wagyu steak is going to be super tender and a chuck roast not so much, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Thousands of years of cooking has proven that almost anything can be made tasty, and frankly should. We don’t have to go all Fergus Henderson on this, but waste isn’t cool, and buying expensive isn’t necessary.

Flesh is flesh – It’s all the connective tissues that are the toughies – tendons, ligaments, and fasciae. Most of these are collagens, the primary structural proteins. That stuff should never be looked upon as waste though. If you’ve checked out any of our posts on making stock, you’ll recall that rendering collagens is what gives meat stocks great body and flavor. If you cook collagen-rich cuts low and slow, you’ll be rewarded with the same benefits – tender meat, and a more balanced budget.

Cuts like pot roast, pork shoulder, and lamb shanks are all glorious when cooked low and slow, and they’re generally pretty inexpensive. I’ll go out on a limb a bit and say the cheaper the better when it comes to something cooked that way – you’ll get a bunch of great meals therefrom. I’d add short ribs and pork belly to this list, except that they’re still considered sexy, and as such, are nowhere close to cheap.

While our butcher cuts and marks stuff as pot roast, that’s not super common in the grocery. In any event, there are several cuts that will make a great one. Most cuts called Chuck will do great – you may also find variations called shoulder or seven bone roasts. Round will also do well – bottom round and rump roasts are probably what you’ll find most often.

Mire Poix and the Thumb Slayer

On to the cook off. I prepped equal amounts of our basic roasting aromatic blend, onion, carrot, celery and garlic, and we deployed our homemade beef stock as well.

My slow cooker roast went fully submarine

For my slow cooker version, I did not sear the roast, and I fully submersed that bad boy in stock, as you can see. M, for her oven version, seared, and used an appropriate amount of stock for a classic braise – maybe an inch and change, but not even close to drowning.

M’s roast seared in a braiser

Both went low and slow – M in a 275° oven, and mine on low in the slow cooker.

M’s oven roast set up for a classic braise

Both cooked until they hit 145° F, and were then given a fifteen minute rest, at which point they temp’d out at right about 155° F. For the record, M’s oven version did have a decent amount of liquid left when it was done cooking. In the image below, M’s roast is top and mine is bottom.

Oven roasted on top, slow cooker below

All three of us agreed, unanimously, that my version was far more tender and juicy. Granted, this wasn’t a full out scientific test with multiple runs and all conditions fully controlled, but it bears out what I believe about cooking such cuts – full submersion gives more moisture to the protein, you get a steadier temperature throughout the cooking process, and that leads to a tender, juicy roast.

Slow cooker pot roast with a cherry gastrique

The image below shows what that slow cooker version looked like the next day after being defatted – you can clearly see how much that stock was able to do.

Slow cooker pot roast did a job on all those tough collagens

And yes, for the record, it tasted great, and I am still gloating – just a little, and quietly.

Perfect Roasts, Every Time

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

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

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

What you’ll need –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drop the oven temp to 175° F.

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

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

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

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

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

Scratch Made Bone Stock

Bone stock – Seems it’s entered, maybe even passed, the realm of tragically hip foods, but I’m here to say that it ain’t necessarily so. It’s winter, when soups, stews, and hearty sauces rule, and bone broth always has and always will have a starring role therein. You can buy the stuff, true enough, but what do you get? Most likely, you’ll find something that is but a pale shadow of its name, or a more or less real deal offering that costs way too much for our liking. Making it at home really is the only viable answer for acquiring top notch quality at a reasonable price – But doing requires some serious time and attention to detail. Is it worth doing? Without a doubt, the answer is yes.

Home made bone stock

Bone stock really isn’t trendy. It’s been around since forever, and for good reason – It’s not only delicious, it’s pretty darn good for you. Building a stock from bones, marrow, connective tissues and a little meat is genuinely nutritious. What you’ll find inside depends to some degree on what you make it from, but generally you’ll get calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sulfur, and silicon from the bones. The marrow contributes Vitamins A and K2, omegas 3 and 6, and trace minerals – iron, zinc, manganese, selenium, and boron among them. The connective tissue adds glucosamine and chondroitin. All that stuff gelatinizes when you make stock, and the gelatin is rich in amino acids, especially glycine, proline, and arginine. There are recent, peer reviewed scientific studies that state, unequivocally, that your mom was right – chicken soup is good for you when you’re sick.

You can make bone broth from a bunch of other stuff – We do so from beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, (and veggies), on a regular basis. In its simplest form, it’s taking the carcass of that chicken or turkey, or beef or pork bones, simmering it low and slow with some aromatics, and then making soup or stew for your meal that night. It’s fun, delicious, and absolutely the right thing to do – using pretty much everything you can from that bird. But when you’re making bulk stock to last the winter, then you’re talking serious bone stock, and that’s what we’re going to do here.

So, where to go for bones? Really, no farther than your fridge or freezer. The first and most important step here is to not throw away anything from what you buy. Bones and carcasses are not refuse, they’re vital ingredients. You can store things up to make a big batch, or do what we do and make smaller ones as you go. In this house, no poultry of any kind is done being used until stock has been made, after however many meals we’ve enjoyed. That’s the way it’s been done through the ages, and it’s what you should be doing too. We buy local, grass fed beef from a high school friend who raises it. Bags of beef bones are part of the bounty we gratefully receive each spring. 

You can ask local butchers for bones, without a doubt – I’ll recommend finding a good Carniceria – They are far more likely than your average grocer to have a Use Everything mentality. If you’re using whole bones, you don’t want to work with anything that’s really Fred Flintstone sized. Get your butcher to cut them down to an average of maybe 3” to 4”, or just grab a hack saw or a hatchet and do it yourself – It’s not that hard at all.

How many bones do you need to make stock? Depends on how much you want to make, really. What you’ll see images of here was almost 5 pounds of bones. You can do it with less and make smaller batches, no problem – what’ll drive quality is the freshness of what you use, and the ration of water to bones – more on that in a bit.

I’m certainly not going to claim that there’s Only One Way To Do This Right, but I will say this – What I’ll outline here works consistently for us, and will for you, too. The process isn’t as fussy as some, and fussier than others – What it entails is what I believe you need to do to make sure you build high quality stock that’s safe to eat. Understand this – doing this requires some of your attention for most of one day and part of another – in other words, it’s a weekend thing for serious food lovers, so if that’s you, read on.

A Note on Equipment.
Home made bone stock

You’ll need a good sized stock pot for this – a 3 gallon (12 Quart) is pushing at the too small side of things, but is viable – a 4 gallon is much better. There’s quite a bit of ingredients volume in a batch the size you see me doing here – We’ve got heavy duty 4 and 5 gallon stainless steel vessels. If you’re going to invest, do not buy a cheap ass pot – Light weight stuff doesn’t transfer heat at all well, and won’t last, either – and I’d steer clear of aluminum pots, period. I highly recommend the Vigor heavy duty stainless steel – aluminum clad stock pots from the Webstaurant Store – you can’t beat the quality for the price on those. You’ll also need a fairly large colander and some cheese cloth, which frankly, you aughta have anyway.

First things first – Blanching.
Home made bone stock

This is fundamentally the same thing you do to veggies prior to freezing them. It’s a quick cooking step with a very specific, and important, task in mind – It removes most of the impurities that will make your stock funky if you don’t do it. And fear not, you will be leaving the good stuff there.

Toss your bones into your pot and cover with a good 5” of cold water.

Put your pot on the most aggressive burner you’ve got and set it on high.

Bring the pot to a full boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a very brisk simmer. 

Let everything simmer for 20 minutes, then carefully pour off all the liquid. 

That icky schmutz left in your sink trap? That’s exactly what you did this step to be rid of.

Home made bone stock

Step Two – Roasting The Bones.

There are stocks, (the so called white stocks), that don’t call for roasted bones and carcasses, but that’s not what we’re after here. We’re after deep, rich flavors, and you cannot get there without roasting. This is a step skipped or skimped on far too often, and that’s no bueno. You want a serious, high heat roast, done long enough to genuinely brown and caramelize.

Home made bone stock

The other consideration here is what to put in there with your bones. For my 2¢ worth, less is better. We’re after the basics here, a focused and potent depth of flavor from bones. You can add whatever you want when you put the stock in use. A hint of an aromatic base with some good salt and pepper is enough. Adding an acid towards the end of the process helps break down connective tissues and gives you richer stock. Tomato paste or purée is the most common choice – it adds a nice bright note and richness to the mix.

Home made bone stock

To Roast roughly 4 to 5 pounds of bones.

Preheat your oven to 425° F and set a rack in a middle position.

Peel, trim, and rough chop 1 medium onion and 3 or 4 cloves of garlic.

Arrange your bones, carcass, etc on a baking sheet(s) with a rim. Don’t overcrowd things – leave a little room between each one. 

Toss the chopped onion and garlic evenly across the pan.

Season everything with kosher salt and ground pepper – a coarse salt is perfect here, but don’t be too heavy handed.

Roast for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the size and volume you’re roasting. You want your bones to get pretty dark – not burned, but notably, definitely roasted, so don’t be shy about the time it takes.

When things are pretty well cooked, but not quite there, pull your sheets out of the oven and carefully smear tomato paste or purée on the bones – I say carefully, because the bones are hot as hell.

Stick everything back in the oven and let them roast for another 15 minutes or so, until the tomato is notably browned.

Home made bone stock

Remove from the oven and move on to the next step.

Step Three – The Long Simmer.

At this phase, you can and should expand your choice of aromatics to add to the bones. We tend to go very traditional with ours – onion, garlic, celery, carrot, and bay leaf, with a little salt and good pepper. You can certainly add other goodies as you like – Fennel, winter root veggies, a little rosemary even. Start out simple, and as you get used to the process and what you like, customize your own mix. Don’t over season here – Again, we’re after basic stock – you’ll add seasoning when you use it.

Home made bone stock

Finally, let’s discuss how long is too long for simmering stock? This will depend on what kind you’re making. Lighter boned stuff like poultry is pretty much played out after 5 or 6 hours, tops, while heavy beef bones could easily go 8 to 10 hours if you have the time and patience, (and I hope you do – The bigger bones can keep on giving if you let them.) In any event, don’t even think about simmering for anything less than 4 hours for poultry and 6 for beef – if you do, you’re largely defeating the purpose of the whole exercise.

To Simmer The Stock

For every 5 pounds of bones, peel, trim, and rough chop 

1 medium Onion

2 Carrots

2 stalks Celery

2-3 Cloves Garlic

2-3 Turkish Bay Leaves

Add bones and aromatics to stock pot, and cover with just enough water to keep everything submerged – you don’t want the bone and aromatic mix swimming in the deep end of the pool – just keep it under simmering water, so it can do its extraction thing.

Add a teaspoon of sea salt, and a few twists of fresh ground pepper.

Turn heat to high until you develop a solid boil.

Reduce heat to a bare simmer, cover the pot and let it go.

Keep an eye on things when you first gear down to a simmer. The covered pot can get frisky – you’re best off turning your heat to low, and then bumping things up a bit if you need to – you’ll get to a consistent simmer faster that way.

Keep a pan or kettle with hot water near by to maintain the water level above the bones. Don’t add excessive amounts – just enough to keep everything submerged.

Step Four – Initial Straining and Cooling.

Home made bone stock

When your stock looks and smells and tastes like it’s done, it’s time to strain and cool. Be careful when you’re pouring hot liquids, for obvious reasons. I use another, smaller stock pot with a colander stuck on top for this first task, getting rid of the cooked out ingredients – you’ll do further clarifying later, so don’t worry about anything more than that at this point.

You can certainly add the used up bones and stuff to your compost pile, by the way. They’re pretty well played out, and the long simmer softens bones, making them break down a bit easier.

Now you need to cool your stock relatively quickly. This is done first and foremost as a food safety best practice – hot broth takes a long time to cool, and it’s a serious playground for bacteria. An ice water bath is the best way to get the job done. Anything from a stoppered sink to a roasting pan or high sided braiser you can partially submerge your stock pot into will do the trick. A 50% -50% blend of ice and water is the desired medium. If you can increase the surface area between the hot liquid` and the cooling bath, by transferring the stock to something shallower and wider, that too will help speed the cooling process – So will stirring every 15 minutes or so.

The Cooling Mantra is this – Drop whatever the current temperature is to below 70° F within 2 hours, and from 70° F to under 40° F within 4 hours after that – Total cooling time, 6 hours or less. Do that, and you’re right as rain. You can also add some ice directly to the stock if you wish, up to 3 or 4 cups worth – As potent as this stuff comes out, you needn’t worry at all about overly diluting your stock at this point. Finally, do not ever put hot liquid into the fridge or freezer – not only will it not cool properly, it’ll heat up everything around it, and that’s just not good.
Home made bone stock

Once the stock is fully cooled, it goes into the fridge overnight. This will allow a lot of the suspended solids to drop out of the solution, and also allow the fat to rise. In the morning, you’ll find clearer stock with a nice, solid layer of fat on top. Time for the next step.

Home made bone stock

Step Five – Defatting and Clarifying.

Time to make your stock as clear as you want it – and that is the only criterion that matters. Your kitchen is not a Guide Michelin restaurant, and you don’t need to be able to read the date on a dime sitting on the bottom of your stock pot. 

That said, you do want to remove the fat. Fortunately, that’s a simple thing with chilled stock. A wide slotted spoon or handled strainer does the job just fine. If you’re reasonably careful, you’ll get 99% of the congealed fat off your stock with no hassle.

Home made bone stock

Now, at this point you could leave things as is, if you wish. Yes, what you have will be kind of cloudy and a bit busy, but truth be told, so what? It’s going to be turned into soup, or stew, or sauce – so who’s going to notice? If you decide to stop here, don’t beat on yourself, it’s all good.
Home made bone stock

Regardless, what you see after the fat is gone may look like, well, loose meat jello. And if it does, congratulations, you’ve made some bitchin’ stock, indeed. If that’s what you got, you gelatinized a whole bunch of the available collagen, and that is exactly what you want – Liquid gold.

Now, if like me you’re just a bit fussy, then you might want to strain that stuff a bit more. It will liquify appreciably as it comes to room temperature. You’ll need cheese cloth and your colander again.

Home made bone stock

Put your straining setup in or over a stock pot and carefully pour your defatted stock through – Keep in mind that the refrigerated overnight caused most of the solids to settle – If you’re careful not to stir up that sludge, one pass will be all you’ll need.

Step Six – Further Tinkering and Portioning.

No matter what kind of bones you used, you really should consider making a reduction with some of your stock. Why? Because if your stock is liquid gold, a 50% reduction of that is platinum. 

Reduction is as simple as it sounds. Put, say, 4 cups of stock in a pan, heat it to a boil, reduce the heat to a bare simmer and leave it there until it’s reduced in volume by 50%. 

Cool the reduction, then transfer that to a clean glass jar with an airtight lid. Refrigerated, it’ll last a couple weeks. A quarter cup of that in 3 cups of water will make a great, fast stock. Even better, divvy it up into an ice cube tray with an airtight, locking lid and freeze it – You can pop out a cube or three when you want to make a quick pan sauce, or to add some zing to anything from mashed potatoes to asparagus, with a zillion options in between.

The rest of your stock can be portioned into pints or quarts and frozen, where it’ll be good for 4 to 6 months. Make sure, if you use glass jars, that you leave plenty of head room for the expansion of freezing stock – I’m talking a good 2”+, and err to the side of caution – broken mason jars in your freezer are no fun.

Your own home made stock, and/or reduction, added to a pan that just had something yummy sautéed in it, with a little butter added, and drizzled over whatever you’re having? That’s liquid gold right there.

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. After thanksgiving, there must be turkey soup with home made stock, and that begs for accompaniment by something delightful – like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.