Enfrijoladas, Mexico’s national dish for fantastic leftovers

It’s a fact that there are amazing go-to leftover dishes all over this world. I think that’s because they’re based on food made at home with deep love, and because so many things really are even better the next day. Of course the real beauty of this is the opportunity to clean out the fridge and rummage through the pantry. All that said, the root of such a meal must be truly stellar, and great beans certainly fall into that category, especially when they lead to Enfrijoladas, Mexico’s national dish for fantastic leftovers.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños Enfrijoladas Ebeños

Like many a favorite, claims to the origins of enfrijoladas are many and varied, from all points of the compass down there. While discerning that is nigh on impossible, what we can say is that the dish is very old. To reinforce that point, we need only to take a quick look at Oaxacan cuisine.

Oaxaca, the heartbeat of indigenous Mexico

Oaxaca is down south a mite, west of the state of Chiapas and south of Puebla state. This area remains a bastion of original Mexican culture, with roughly 50% of the indigenous population there non-Spanish speakers. The geography and climate have allowed pre-Columbian culture to remain relatively healthy, which is a godsend to those striving to better grasp Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards – Recent archeological studies indicate that the first inhabitants arrived over 10,000 years ago.

That antiquity is certainly reflected in the Oaxacan diet, where corn, beans, chiles, chocolate, game, and yes, insects, are staples to this day, with relatively little European influence found therein. Hundreds of mole variants come from here, as do rightfully famous versions of enfrijoladas. Made simply with black beans and potent chiles on lightly fried, fresh corn tortillas, This is a delicious and stunningly complex experience for such a simple dish – And it’s a safe bet they’ve been made this way for a long, long time.

Regardless of origin, the real beauty of making enfrijoladas is that winging it is par for the course. It’s a dish intended to use whatever you find that seems promising to you – So explore, take a risk or three, and see what happens. It’s a safe bet you’ll rarely make the same thing twice, and that’s good, (and of course, if you do strike on a mix that really bowls you over, write it down so you can do it again.)

So, naturally, there’s the bean question. When this posts I know that a bunch of y’all are going to think, ‘I’ve heard of those, but I thought they were supposed to be made with ____ bean.’ You’re not wrong, but the real key to great enfrijoladas is this – You can and should make them with any bean you have. That is, in fact, the great joy of the dish. If they’re really good beans, like Rancho Gordo or other reputable heirloom stuff, they’ll be stunning. I cannot encourage you enough to try a bunch of different beans in this pursuit. Yes, down in Oaxaca, black beans generally rule, but everywhere in Mexico, they grow and eat far more varieties than that. 

Rancho Gordo is the best way I know to try top shelf heirloom beans – In fact, the ones you’ll see me use herein are a French variety, Mogette de Vendée, that I got from them. I overcooked them for my original intent, but rather than freak out, we froze them and bided our time – When the thought of enfrijoladas came up, we went to the freezer and were off to the races – That’s how great leftovers work, gang.

French white beans for enfrijoladas?! Si!

The heartbeat of enfrijoladas is the sauce and the tortillas, of course. If ever there was a time to make fresh corn tortillas, this would be it, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the dish – As you’ll see in our pictures, we had store bought stuff that needed to get used, so that’s what we did – It’s all good in the ‘hood. 

Your sauce may be nothing more than beans and chiles with some bean broth or stock to thin things out, and if so, it’ll be wonderful – It never hurts to start as a purist, if for no other reason than to fully grasp why this dish is so ubiquitous down south. Again though, this is all about exploring pantry and fridge and using what needs to be used. You’ll see below that our version had quite a bit in the mix – Either end of that spectrum and everything in between is encouraged. 

As for filling, nothing more than great cheese is needed, preferably Mexican – Manchego would be a great filling cheese, as would Queso Blanco or Queso Oaxaca, (and Cotija or Queso Fresco would be great for topping). That said, here too the Leftover Rule is in full force – So use what needs to go. If you’ve got proteins, fine, if not, that’s fine too.

Toppings are also up for grabs. Certainly salsa or pico de gallo will go well, as will avocado, crema (Mexican sour cream), cilantro, shredded cabbage, citrus, more diced veggies, maybe a quick pickle of something – Whatever you have that needs to get used.

Enfrijoladas Toppings - Whatever ya got.

When preparing the sauce, you may simply add beans and some broth or stock to a pan, mash them to your liking, add some chiles, and call it good, because rustic is very good indeed. If you want or need to add more stuff, then you’ll want to get a blender involved. Either way, this is not a difficult or time consuming dish to make, which is another big reason it’s so popular.

 

Rustic Enfrijoladas

2-3 Cups of any cooked Bean, hopefully with some broth, (if not, chicken or veggie stock is fine)

9-12 Corn tortillas

Fresh, dried, or ground Chiles

Shredded Cheese for filling and, if desired, topping

Salsa or Pico de Gallo

Crema (or sour cream)

Leftover meat or poultry, if desired

Avocado oil for frying

If using fresh chiles, stem, seed, and fine dice.

Prepare salsa, pico, and other toppings as desired.

If using dried chiles, bring a small sauce pan of water to the boil and then remove from heat. Add however many chiles you desire and allow them to steep for 20-30 minutes until softened. Remove skins, tops, and seeds, and then mince.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add beans and mash by hand to a rough but even paste.

Add enough broth or stock to the beans to achieve the consistency of stew or a thick pasta sauce.

Add chiles to the beans and stir to incorporate. 

When the mix is heated through, reduce heat to warm.

In a second skillet over medium high heat, add a tablespoon of avocado oil and heat through.

Fry tortillas just enough to heat them through, but remain flexible.

To serve, add a generous swipe of bean sauce to a warm plate.

grab a tortilla, slather it with a thin layer of beans, and add cheese and any other fillings, then roll it up and place it seam side down on the plate. Repeat to desired serving size, then add a generous spoon or two of bean sauce to the tops of the rolled tortillas.

Serve immediately.

 

Urban’s Deluxe Enfrijoladas – Again, this is what I had on hand that needed to get used – It’s a guideline, not a rule, so have fun and use what you’ve got.

white bean enfrijolada sauce

For the Bean Sauce – 

3-4 Cups leftover beans

Bean Broth or Stock

9-12 Corn Tortillas

1+ Chiles of your choice, (I used 3 Serrano’s that needed to go.)

1-2 Tomatoes

3-4 Tomatillos

1/2 medium Onion

3-4 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar

1 Tablespoon dried Guajillo Chile

1/2 teaspoon fine ground Salt

Stem, core and halve veggies, then arrange on a baking sheet.

Veggies for enfrijolada sauce, ready to roast

Place on an upper middle rack in an oven on broil and cook until the skins blister.

Remove from heat and allow to cool enough to handle.

Roasted veggies for enfrijolada sauce

Wrap tortillas in metal foil and toss them into the hot oven to warm up (shouldn’t need any heat after roasting the veggies in there – You just want to warm them a little to encourage the sauce to stick during assembly.)

Add beans, roasted veggies, and vinegar to a blender vessel with a half cup of bean broth or stock. Process into a smooth sauce, adding more liquid as needed, to achieve the consistency of a thick soup or pasta sauce.

Transfer the sauce to a skillet over medium heat.

When the sauce is heated through, add guajillo chile and salt, and stir to incorporate. You may want to add more broth, stock, or seasoning to strike a balance you like.

Turn the heat down to low.

For the filling – 

Use any leftover meat, poultry, or what have you, if you wish. 

2 Cups of melting cheese

Dice up proteins and add it to a skillet over medium heat with a little stock or broth to moisturize and allow that to heat through.

Shred melting cheese.

For the toppings – Here again, use what you’ve got that needs to go – We went with,

Chopped Tomato

Diced Onion

Chopped Avocado

Chopped Cilantro

A quick pickle of sweet peppers, chiles, onion, cilantro (All veggies fine diced, in 3/4 Cup cider vinegar, 1/4 cup water, pinch of salt, three finger pinch of Mexican oregano.)

Shredded lettuce with sliced radish

Lime Wedges

Crema

Crumbled Queso Cotija 

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

 

For the Big Show –

Preheat oven to 300° F and place a rack in the middle position.

Lightly rub a 9” x 11” baking dish with avocado oil.

Set up an assembly area where you can have your bean sauce and fillings side by side with your baking dish.

Enfrijolada assembly station

Spread a generous layer of the bean sauce evenly across the baking dish.

Enfrijolada baking dish ready for tortillas

Grab a tortilla and either dunk one side into the bean sauce, or use a spoon to do the same while you hold it – Whichever works easier for you. 

Add a nice even layer of sauce to the tortilla, then add fillings. 

Enfrijoladas dipped and ready for filling

Roll the tortilla up and place it seam side down in the baking pan.

Enfrijoladas dipped and filled

Repeat until you’ve filled the pan.

Add any and all remaining bean sauce to the tops of the tortillas.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños ready to bake

You can add more stuff there if you like – Tomato, onion, what have you.

Bake at 300° F for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños

Go wild.

BTW, none of mine survived contact with the enemy, which is as it should be…

Carne Guisada

David Berkowitz is one of the best home cooks I know. He’s inquisitive, inventive, and fearless in the kitchen. When he asks for recipes or advice, I give it, and when he’s offering, I listen carefully. When he put out the call to Texas friends for a Carne Guisada recipe, I knew I had to throw mine into the mix.

My answer was as follows – ‘Waaalllll, ah’ll tell yoo whut. I lived and cooked in Cowtown for 12 years, so I consider myself a Texas Friend – Besides, I got a bitchin’ recipe.’

I’m no longer a Texan by location, but I certainly still am by way of a deep love for the people, the food, and the amazing land. Spend any significant time in Texas and it gets into your blood and does not let go. M and I both know that returning there to some degree is absolutely in our future.

Carne guisada, literally translates as stewed beef – It’s the Mexican or Tex-Mex take on this worldwide favorite comfort food. It is widely claimed as a Tex Mex dish, and it is – by assimilation, but not by origin – that definitely comes from farther south. Carne guisada is a low and slow stove top or oven cooked beef stew, some version of which has been made since fire and hunting crossed paths.

Frankly, the Euro version of beef stew, with root vegetables and little to no kick onboard seems pretty pedestrian along side guisada. Powered by chiles and warm herbs and spices, guisada seriously hits the spot on a nasty winter night.

The wheelhouse of this stew is traditional – cubes of meat, dusted with flour, cooked until a nice char develops – that yields the right flavor and a seriously rich body. The flour dusting, combined with tomatillos, makes for a delicious, thick gravy.

The essence of carne guisada is the chiles and spices, but it is a dish that is fundamentally meant to use what you have on hand don’t get too caught up in the ‘right’ combinations – there is no wrong. For peppers, anything from bell to nuclear is fine, if that’s what you like – that said, it’s proper to have a couple different chiles in the mix for depth of flavor. Of course the liquid content should be Texas tinged, which is why I make mine with Shiner Bock.

Carne guisada is beef, but this dish can be made with poultry, or pork, or extra firm tofu, and it will be equally fabulous – it’s a marvelous springboard for invention and exploration. Fact is, everybody’s Mamma or Abuela makes their own version, and you will too.

Fresh is best for the veggies, but if it’s mid-winter, and canned or frozen is what you’ve got, that’s what you’ll use. The cumin really should be from seeds you grind, but if pre-ground is what you’ve got, use that too. Mexican, not Turkish, oregano is a must – nothing else has the right flavor.

I call for ground New Mexican red chile, but any that you like will do – That’s where you can introduce a little heat if you use mild chiles, as well as another layer of chile complexity – a must for this dish.

Urban’s Cowtown Carne Guisada

2 Pounds Stew Beef, (chuck or shoulder roast)

1 large Yellow onion2 fresh Hatch Chiles (Anaheims are fine)

2 fresh Pasilla Chiles (or Poblano)

3-4 fat cloves Garlic

3-4 Roma Tomatoes

3-4 Tomatillos

1 Bottle Shiner Bock Beer

2 Tablespoons Lard (Avocado oil is fine)

4 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

1 Tablespoon ground New Mexican Red Chile

2 teaspoons ground Cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Black Pepper

Pop the top on the Shiner and let it breath while you prep.

Cut beef into roughly 3/4” cubes.

In a bag or bowl, combine beef, flour, a teaspoon of salt, and 5 or 6 grinds of pepper – Toss to thoroughly coat the beef.

Trim and dice onion, chiles, tomatoes, and tomatillos.

Smash, peel, trim and mince garlic.

In a cast iron Dutch oven over medium heat, add the cubed beef.

Cook beef on one side, undisturbed, until a deep brown crust is formed, about 3-4 minutes

Turn the beef and repeat the browning step until they’re all got a nice deep brown char layer.

Transfer beef to a mixing bowl.

Deglaze the pan with the Shiner Bock – Scrape all the naughty bits from the bottom of the pan into suspension.

When that’s done, pour the results into the bowl with the beef.

Add lard to the Dutch oven and heat until shimmering.

Add onion and chiles, and season lightly with salt and pepper – sauté until onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-4 minutes.

Add garlic and sauté, blending in with other veggies, until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2 minutes.

Add tomato and tomatillo and blend in, and cook for about 3-4 minutes until everything is simmering.

Return the beef and beer and scrapings to the pan and stir to thoroughly incorporate.

Once you get to a brisk simmer, reduce heat to low and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

If things get too thick, add a little stock and whisk in to incorporate, but note that carne guisada should be notably thicker than beef stew – you want a dish you can scoop into flour tortillas without a bunch of it running off the sides.

Add oregano, cumin, and chile powder, whisk to incorporate.

Taste and adjust salt balance as needed.

Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve with fresh flour tortillas, crumbled queso fresco or Monterey Jack, lime wedges, fresh pico de gallo, chopped cilantro, and mas Shiner.

Authentic Caesar Salad

As much as I may seem to focus on hefty proteins here, let me go on record as stating that I seriously love salad. The variety and endless flavor combinations just absolutely float my boat. Had I to choose one to rule them all, it would be without question the Caesar, the king of salads.

In the mid-70’s I worked in a French restaurant that did many things the old school way, among them table side service of Chateaubriand, Steak Diane, and of course, Caesar salad. Never mind that two out of three of those dishes didn’t originate in France, they are all classic table side preparations, and the French have never been shy about appropriating a good thing.

In the mid 1930s, an august group of French chefs hailed the Caesar salad as ‘the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in the last fifty years,’ and they were right. While there are many claims to who actually originated this gem, it’s generally agreed that the honor goes to Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who ran restaurants in Southern California and northern Mexico starting in the 1920s.

It’s said that the original came about via the mother of culinary invention – immediate need. Running low on supplies during a busy service at his Tijuana namesake restaurant, he put together what he had – romaine lettuce, Parmigiano Regiano cheese, croutons, and a garlicky vinaigrette with a couple of fabulous twists.

Truly defining what is or is not ‘authentic’ with a Caesar isn’t as simple as it sounds. While Cardini’s family champions his origin claim, there is very little early documentation of the recipe. Caesar was by all report producing this salad from the 1920s onward, but the first detailed version of the salad wasn’t published until the mid 1940s, and it didn’t come from Cardini. Like many a restaurateur, Caesar wasn’t all that keen on sharing the secret of a very good thing. Do an internet search for Authentic Caesar, and you’ll get hundreds of results that vary quite a bit.

You’ll also find a lot of references to Caesar’s version versus his brother Alex’s, and the issue is often painted as a sibling duel – which it was indeed. Alex joined Caesar’s in 1926, and brazenly tweaked his brothers original recipe, changing the oil from olive to vegetable, the cheese from Parmigiano to pecorino – and adding anchovies.

Alex called his version the Aviator salad in honor of military pilots from a nearby San Diego air base. Caesar was not amused, especially when Alex’s version became quite popular – As far as he was concerned, his namesake salad was made with extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano Regiano, and Worcestershire sauce, period. Anything else was an imposter, even if it came from his brother – maybe especially when it came from his brother.

The original Caesar was made with big, whole leaves of romaine, generously dressed and arranged artfully on a plate – meant to be picked up with your fingers and eaten just like that. The preparation was always table-side, and still is – almost 100 years later, Caesar’s is located where it’s always been, on the Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana, and is still serves their namesake salad.

If you’ve never been treated to a great table-side Caesar, now’s your chance – at your very own table. Sure, if you’re in a hurry, you can buy Caesar dressing – Cardini’s makes several iterations that are pretty good for bottled dressing – But you owe it to yourself to do it up right now and again.

General Notes –

1. I use Greek olive oil because I love the flavor – you can and should use whatever you like best. If you notice a distinctly greenish cast to my dressing, that is why.

2. I use lemon and lime for the citrus element – fact is, we don’t really know what Caesar used back when, but in northern Mexico, limes and lemon/lime hybrids are pretty common, while yellow lemons were and still are not.

3. The lion’s share of recipes out there employ raw garlic – now, if you like that, go for it, but my family does not. That’s why I blend garlic with oil and deploy it in the dressing and on the croutons. That way, your dressing garlic is nicely marinated in the oil, which tames it appreciably, and what you use for the croutons gets baked and nicely distributed throughout the dish.

4. Real deal Caesar dressing must have egg. You’ll see exhortations to go raw, to hard boiled, and everything in between. Best available evidence says Caesar used very lightly boiled egg yolk – eggs boiled just long enough to thicken them and to appreciably remove the danger of salmonella. That’s what I do, and strongly recommend to you. Raw just doesn’t taste right to me, and anything towards hard boiled is just wrong.

Urban’s As Authentic As You Want It Caesar Salad

1 head Romaine Lettuce

1/2 Cup Parmigiano Regiano cheese

3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil, (Plus 1/4 cup for the croutons)

2 large Eggs

1 Lemon

1 Lime

3-4 fat cloves of Garlic

Worcestershire Sauce

Baguette, other dense white bread

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

Trim, peel and mince garlic as finely as you can, then add that to the oil – allow to sit and marry for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 325° F, with a rack in the middle slot.

Cut bread into roughly 1/2” thick slices and then cubes – if you’re using baguette, allow 3-4 slices per person.

Add croutons to a bowl with 1/4 cup of the garlic oil and toss to coat thoroughly, then slide them into the oven.

Bake until the croutons are crunchy and light golden brown, about 7-10 minutes. Remove and transfer to a bowl.

Grate Parmigiano on a large grate, transfer to a bowl.

Cut lemon and lime in half and set in a bowl.

Cut romaine off 2” to 3” above the base, and remove any scruffy outer leaves. Leave what’s left whole, and place lettuce and the plates you’ll use for service into the fridge to chill.

You’ll want the biggest bowl you’ve got for dressing the salad – if you don’t have something pretty large, do the deed in 2 batches.

Make a space at your table to put on the show – arrange your mis en place there – everything you’ve prepped, plus salt, pepper, and Worcestershire, tongs for tossing and serving.

In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add enough water to boil the eggs – you want an inch or more above egg height.

Prep a small bowl of ice water beside the cooking pan.

Once the water is fully boiling, gently add eggs and set a 2 minute timer.

When 2 minutes are up, carefully transfer the eggs to the ice bath to stop the cooking process.

When the eggs are cool enough to handle, (it only takes a minute or two), carefully crack the eggs and scoop the yolks into a small bowl.

Ready to rock? Arrange all ingredients at your table station, and assume the slightly bored but deeply competent expression of a career Parisian waiter.

Add the Romaine leaves to your large bowl.

In a separate dressing bowl, add about three-quarters of the remaining garlic and olive oil mix, a generous pinch of salt, and 8-10 twists of pepper.

Squeeze the juice from each lemon and lime, 10-12 drops of Worcestershire sauce, and the egg yolks and whisk to incorporate.

Taste and adjust as needed for oil, Worcestershire, citrus, seasoning, etc.

Pour about 3/4 of the dressing over the lettuces and gently roll the leaves to thoroughly coat them. Add more dressing as needed to get that done.

Add the croutons and the Parmigiano, and toss gently to incorporate.

If you want to be molto autentico, place whole leaves on a plate, stem ends facing out, so that they can be eaten as Caesar intended.

As your diners swoon, you may mournfully intone, ‘Bon appetit, Madame.’

NOTE – This dressing really should be consumed right away – it will not store well at all.

Cracklin Bread

Wandering further down the cornbread road, we come to cracklin bread – that’s cornbread with cracklins therein. Cracklins are nothing more than fatty pig skin put to a far better use than football. Of course, the subject isn’t quite that simple – if it were, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, or as tasty. If we’re going to make cracklin bread, we’ve gotta know our cracklins.

Cracklin bread
Cracklin bread

Here in the states, pork rinds have always been a thing, at least in the south. Worldwide, they’re everywhere. In Mexic0, South and Central America, and Spain, they’re chicharones. Up in Canada, they might be scrunchions or orielles de Christ. In China, they’re Zhīzhā, in Thailand, it’s khaep mu. In the Slavic countries, they’re škvarky, tepertő in Hungary, and jumări in Romania. They’re integral to the traditional Czech dish, bramborové knedlíky se škvarkama a kyselým zelím – potato dumplings with cracklings and sauerkraut. In merry old England, they’re scratchings.

Khaep Mu from Thailand

You needn’t be a Fergus Henderson fan to know that it’s still very much waste not want not when it comes to hoof to snout consumption of our piggy pals. The names and dishes detailed above aren’t oddities, they’re mainstream eats, all made possible by pork skin. If you think that’s icky, think again the next time you’re swooning over crisp turkey or chicken skin, or bacon for that matter.

Pork rinds come to us through lard production, as well as general slaughter and processing. In the south, the venerable cast iron wash pot was and is used to render down lard. Leftover scraps and skin went in there as well, and crunchy bits of that would rise to the surface, to be skimmed off, lightly salted, and served as a snack – and they’re friggin’ seriously good, by the way.

There are, of course, less than inspired versions of this age old treat out there, and if you’ve ever had them, I’m sorry – a lot of what gets called cracklins and sold in stores is closer in consistency and taste to packing material than pork.

Fortunately, there are plenty of places to get good stuff, and probably one or more near you – go to your local carniceria or Latin market and you should be good to go. If you’re blessed with a local butcher, ask if they do cracklins – if they make leaf lard, they well might.

There are variations on the theme – The basic version of a rind is just skin – no fat at all. Into hot fat they go, and you get the Cheeto-like puffy thing. A genuine cracklin has some fat and maybe little flecks of meat still attached – something with some flavor and very satisfying bacony crunch.

I get mine from 4505 Meats – they have a luscious fat layer, a nice crunch, a little sea salt, and nothing else. The donor pigs are humanely raised, with no added hormones or antibiotics. You can find them online.

Making cracklin bread is no more involved than adding them to your favorite cornbread recipe. If you favor a dense, super moist version of this wonderful stuff, just add a packed cup of good quality cracklins to my latest and greatest, and you’re good to go. If, in reading that piece, the purist hot water version appeals, here’s the drill for that – You can bake or fry, as you prefer.

Hot water cracklin bread
Hot water cracklin bread

Urban’s Hot Water Cracklin Bread


4 Cups coarse ground Cornmeal

2 Cups Cracklins

2 teaspoons Sea Salt


Bring 3 cups of fresh water to a full boil.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal and salt.

Carefully pour boiling water over the dry mixture, whisking steadily until you have a heavy batter consistency.

Let the batter sit, allowing the meal to fully absorb the water, and the mixture to cool enough to handle.

You want a consistency that will allow you to hand form cakes about 3” to 4” round and about 3/4” thick.


To Bake –

Preheat oven to 400° F, and set a rack in the middle slot.

Generously butter a heavy baking sheet, and place cakes evenly on the sheet, with an inch between each.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown, and a toothpick stuck in the middle of a cake comes away clean.

Serve hot with lots and lots of butter.

To Fry –

In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, heat oil, using an instant read thermometer to monitor temperature – you want right about 375° F.

Once your fat is up to temp, add generous soup spoons of batter – You can get 3 or 4 in a 12” skillet without crowding.

If you like things thin and crispy, use the back of the spoon to tamp down each dollop a bit, otherwise, let it ride for a softer middle.

These will cook quite quickly – about 1 to 2 minutes per side – when you’ve got a nice golden brown, it’s time to flip.

Transfer cooked cornbread to a paper towel lined wire rack to cool a bit.

As soon as you can grab them without burning yourself, devour with abandon.

Chicken Paprikash

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

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

Paprika chiles
The Paprika Chile

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

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

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

Real deal Hungarian paprika
Real deal Hungarian paprika

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

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

There are three important tips to great paprikash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Chicken Paprikash


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

1 large Yellow Onion

3 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 Red Bell Pepper

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

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

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

1/4 Cup Sweet Hungarian Paprika

2 Tablespoons Leaf Lard

1 slice dense white Bread

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Fresh Parsley for garnish

.

Trim, peel and dice onion and sweet pepper.

Trim, peel and mince garlic.

Purée tomatoes with a stick blender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carefully transfer chicken to a platter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Chicken Paprikash

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

Hungarian Nokedli

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

2 Cups All Purpose Flour

4 large Eggs

1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil

2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

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

Place the pot on a burner over high heat.

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

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

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

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

Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes.

You’ll cook the nokedli in batches.

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

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

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

Gently stir the dumplings to keep them from sticking.

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

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

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

These can be made ahead, and refrigerated or frozen.

Cornbread III – The Go To, and Traditional Hot Water Cornbread

There’s a bunch of recipes out there for cornbread, including several of mine, the last of which I wrote about a year ago. I guess it’s not all that strange that my go to recipe has changed again.

Cornbread is as old as fire and grain in human history. Like pretty much everyone else who’s obsessive about food, I’ve gussied up and stripped down cornbread recipes more times that I can remember.

Here in the states, in very general terms, the farther into the Deep South you go, the closer cornbread gets to its deepest roots. One of the recipes I’ll share here today, hot water cornbread, harkens back very closely indeed. Go west, into Texas, or pretty much anywhere up north, and the stuff gets sweeter and and more cake-like.

All that aside, whatever version you make will only be as good as your corn meal. No matter how pumped up or stripped down your recipe, if your meal isn’t fresh and of good quality, it’ll be impossible to make a really stellar final product. That’s especially true with hot water cornbread, where the meal used has literally nothing else to hide behind.

Fortunately, there’s a resurgence in great corn and corn meal, much of that centered in the Deep South, but not all. Do a little searching, and you’re more likely than not to find a small mill near you.

That’s good for a number of reasons – you’ll get fresh stuff, it’ll likely come from local corn, and you’ll be supporting one or more small, local businesses. With a wealth of heirloom varieties coming into cultivation, you’ll find a lot more options out there than you did in years past.

So it’s a great time to tweak your personal recipe. That may entail nothing more than a new corn variety, or it might lead to a full blown overhaul. If you love cornbread, you simply must explore all those regional twists and niche recipes – that’s where brilliance and inspiration often hides. Small mills offer variety on grind, too – which is important, I think – I love the nuttier taste of a coarse grind.

For either version shared here, cast iron is a key element. Cast iron provides excellent thermal conductivity for this dish – in essence, that’s the ability of the cooking vessel to conduct heat, or more specifically, to absorb heat from areas of higher temperature and move it to areas of lower temperature, like your batter.

For my current go to, there are a couple more key steps – Preheat your oven with a rack in the middle position, and your cast iron skillet on that.

Having your skillet oven hot is important for two reasons – first, it’ll foster a nice, crispy crust to start forming as soon as you drop batter in the skillet, and secondly, it’ll brown your butter – that’ll yield a deeper, richer smell and mouth feel, and a lovely nutty minor taste note.

What I’m doing now is more or less southern-style cornbread. There’s no sugar, it’s 50%-50% flour and cornmeal, and the way it’s built pretty much guarantees a great finish every time – Bold words, I know, but I’ll stand behind them. And for purity’s sake, there’s the hot water version too – try that when you come across some truly special cornmeal.

Flour note – I use bread flour for my cornbread. It has a little bit higher protein content than AP, a.k.a. a bit more gluten. I like that, because I get a better rise out of it while maintaining a nice overall density. You can certainly use all purpose, if that’s what you prefer.

Urban’s Go To Cornbread


1 Cup Cornmeal

1 Cup Bread Flour

2 Cups Buttermilk (Or 1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk and 1/2 Cup Sour Cream)

1/2 Cup Unsalted Butter

2 large Eggs

1 Tablespoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Sea Salt

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 425° F and place a rack in the middle slot. Slide your dry cast iron skillet in there too.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder – whisk to thoroughly incorporate.

In a second mixing bowl, combine buttermilk and eggs, (or milk, sour cream and eggs if you go that road) and whisk thoroughly to incorporate.

When your oven is preheated, add the butter to your skillet – keep an eye on that, so you get it melted and browned, not burned – this should only take you a couple minutes at that temp.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients, carefully adding the browned butter.

Whisk just enough to combine things, then use a spatula to quickly get the batter into the hot skillet.

Bake for 22-25 minutes, until cornbread is golden brown, and a toothpick stuck in the middle of the skillet comes out clean.


Serve hot, then eat more the next morning, if any survived.

Hot water cornbread is the real deal in the south, or as my friend Carter Monroe puts it, ‘What we in The Provinces refer to as “The Grown Folks Method.”’

Also known variously as corn pone, hoecake, or corn dodgers, this is cornbread stripped to its roots.

When I asked Carter if folks would make different versions for kids and adults, he wrote, ‘Nah, the Northern version of what I call “cake” cornbread has permeated the south. This is old school. What those of us who are wore out grew up with.’ That’s more than good enough for this here Yankee.

When you contemplate making this version, remember what I wrote above. Hot water cornbread often was and is made from freshly ground meal, from good local corn – that’s key, frankly, because that meal is what you’re going to taste here. There’s nothing else in the mix but enough water to get to the consistency you like and a little salt to make everything pop – that’s it.

Coarse or fine ground is also up to you, but far as I’m concerned, it aughta be coarse for this.

There’s no sugar in there, so whatever sweetness you’ll taste comes from the corn. There’s no leavening, so you won’t get a rise either, albeit you can manipulate things quite a bit. Make a thicker batter with some air whipped into it, and you’ll get cornbread with a creamy, soft middle – the corn/water slurry will trap some air bubbles as it fries. Leave it thin and you can have it as crispy as you like.

Oh yes – this version is fried in oil, y’all, not baked, which adds a whole new texture, and subtle flavor notes. This brings a frying fat into play as well, so what’ll it be? Leaf lard, peanut oil, or corn oil will all do fine, and each will have a slightly different flavor profile. If you’re feeling modern, avocado oil is a great choice – it has a great, buttery taste.


This is hot water cornbread, which means the water matters too. If you have funky water, you’ll get funky cornbread. We happen to be graced with such, so we use a filtered pitcher for cooking water, and that’s what I’ll recommend to y’all if you share that malady.

Finally, although there’s not much salt in the recipe, you’ll taste it. Kosher works fine, but this is a great place for some fancier salts to express a subtle flavor note too – use ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, I say.

Hot Water Cornbread


3/4 Cup Cornmeal

1/2 to 3/4 Cup Water

1/2 teaspoon Salt

Frying Fat of your choice

Heat water to near boiling – do 3/4 cup, so you have some leeway once you see how things shake out.

In a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, 1/2 cup water and salt and whisk to incorporate with a fork.

Adjust water ratio to your desired consistency if the initial balance is too thick for you.

In a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add enough oil to get about 1/2 inch depth.

Heat oil, using an instant read thermometer to monitor temperature – you want right about 375° F.

Once your fat is up to temp, add generous soup spoons of batter – You can get 3 or 4 in a 12” skillet without crowding.

If you like things thin and crispy, use the back of the spoon to tamp down each dollop a bit, otherwise, let it ride for a softer middle.

These will cook quite quickly – about 1 to 2 minutes per side – when you’ve got a nice golden brown, it’s time to flip.

Transfer cooked cornbread to a paper towel lined wire rack to cool a bit.

As soon as you can grab them without burning yourself, devour with abandon.

Urban’s New England Baked Beans

If you’re from New England, chances are good you grew up with oven baked beans. There’s a brand that’s emblematic of that heavenly dish – beans from the B&M company. As good as they are, those are canned, and we can do much better at home, from scratch.


Boston is known as Bean Town, and one of B&M’s venerable offerings is their Boston Best version, so you wouldn’t be out of line assuming that the company is based there – but it’s not. Way back in 1867, George Burnham and Charles Morrill got together in Portland, Maine to start a canning company. They’re still at it right there, at 1 Bean Pot Circle. Their beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and they’re still damn good canned beans.


Beans came to New England colonists via the natives, who taught them to plant them as the Three Sisters, with corn and squash, a scheme that enriches soil, mutually supports, and discourages weeds and pests. Baked beans naturally followed, especially as a sabbath meal that kinda cheated, by cooking them Saturday night so they’d still be hot the next day.

Baked beans became specifically a Boston thing in the late 1700’s, when the town was a major rum producer and exporter – molasses was used to make rum, and it also made great beans. A fair amount of salt pork also moved the through town, headed for ships stores and provided by local farmers. Thus a legendary dish was born.


A traditional New England baked bean sports major notes of pork and molasses, with minors of onion, garlic, mustard, and smoke. Tomatoes were generally accepted as food around the middle of the eighteenth century, and gradually found their way into baked bean recipes. Plenty of other herbs and spices are fantastic there too – The ever musical parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are great starting points for further exploration.

Jacobs cattle beans
Jacobs Cattle Beans


As for the bean itself, you’ll find plenty of advice to the effect that Navy beans are the only proper one to use, but that’s bunk. Navy and Great Northerns were and are used by canners because they hold up well to cooking, canning, and long term storage. While New Englanders appreciate those characteristics, they also like a little variety in the garden. Baked beans were and are still made with other local heirloom varieties, like Soldier, Yellow Eye, or Jacobs Cattle. If you’d like to try those out, Green Thumb Farms of Fryeburg, Maine will sell you some.

Soldier Beans
Soldier Beans


With a recent resurgence in heirloom bean cultivation, you can and should do some sleuthing and find new favorites – Check out your local scene to see what’s being grown around you. Online, Rancho Gordo is the place for stunningly delicious beans. If you prefer Navy or Great Northern, I highly recommend Camellia as a source.


A very common complaint about home made baked beans centers on bitterness. It’s assumed that the problem is not enough sweetener, and most folks simply throw more brown sugar at the mix, but that’s not really a solution. Too much sugar disrupts the delicate balance of flavors, and I n any event, the problem probably lies in the molasses you’re using.


Dark and blackstrap molasses dominate in stores, enough that many of us don’t know there are other options out there. Frankly, neither of those is what you want in your beans. Blackstrap molasses is boiled three times, resulting in a very thick, dark, bitter product. While it’s relatively high in vitamins and minerals, it’s absolutely not good at all for cooking. Dark molasses is twice boiled, meaning it’s still pretty bitter.


What you want is light molasses, also called sweet, first, mild, or Barbados – That’s the stuff that will produce great baked beans in your kitchen, and it’ll do well in just about any recipe calling for molasses. Sulphured molasses, by the way, means it was treated with sulphur dioxide as a preservative – and yes, you can taste that, so, look for unsulfered on the shelf. Grandma’s brand, which is fairly ubiquitous, is light if it’s the original yellow label version – their ‘robust’ green label is dark.


What pork to use? Anything with a good fat content will do. Bacon, belly, fat back, and salt pork all come to mind, and there’s nothing wrong with sausage if you like that best. Whatever you choose can go raw into this recipe, so long as it’s cut fairly small – It’s going to have plenty of cooking time.
I get powdered smoke from Butcher and Packer, and it rocks – it’s 100% natural and can’t be beat. They have hickory and mesquite. If you must, you can use liquid smoke, but I find that stuff pretty harsh.

Mixteca salt comes from Rancho Gordo and is amazing stuff. It’s mined in Puebla, and has a high bicarbonate content – Added at the beginning of cooking, (I do so after the brief initial boil), it will soften your beans appreciably. It ably replaces baking soda, which imparts a taste I don’t care for at all.


What to bake your beans in? If you’ve got clay or earthenware, that’s a top choice – It imparts a subtle note you can’t get elsewhere, and is hard to describe if you’ve never experienced it. Barring that, a really heavy vessel like cast iron that will really hold heat will work great.


My recipe isn’t a classic anything, and frankly, there’s no such thing – Everybody’s Mom and Gramma did things their own way and so should we. This is what I love best when I make New England baked beans. Try it, and then tweak it to make it your own favorite.

Urban’s New England Baked Beans


1 Pound Dry Beans

1/2 Pound Bacon, Belly, Fat Back, or Sausage

1 small Sweet Onion

2 cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 Cup Light Molasses

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar

6 0z. can Tomato Paste

2 teaspoons Dry Mustard

1teaspoon Sea Salt

1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

1 teaspoon powdered Smoke

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

Pinch Rancho Gordo Mixteca Salt

In a single mesh strainer, rinse beans and check for stones, (I’ve never found one in any Rancho Gordo bean package, but you should always check)


In a heavy sauce pot over medium high heat, add beans, bay leaves, and at least 2” of water above bean level.


ALWAYS maintain at least 2” of water above cooking bean level. Have a kettle ready to go for hot water to add as needed.


Bring beans to a boil for 10 minutes, then add a pinch of Mixteca salt and reduce heat to the barest simmer you can achieve – you literally want a lazy bubble now and again and nothing more.


Simmer beans until they are al dente – not done, but not tooth breaking hard. Cooking time varies depending on the variety you use.


Peel, trim and fine dice onion.


Peel, trim and mince garlic.


Dice whatever pork you’re using.


When beans are al dente, pour them carefully into a single mesh strainer over a stock pot, reserving the bean broth.


Preheat oven to 300° F and set a rack in the middle position. NOTE – If you’re cooking in clay, do not preheat your oven, start with it cold.


In a large mixing bowl, combine onion, garlic, tomato paste, agave nectar, salt, pepper, smoke powder, and dry mustard. Stir well to fully incorporate.


Add beans to the bowl, along with 2 cups of bean broth. Stir well to fully incorporate. You want a very soupy mix, far wetter than you want your finished beans, so add more liquid if needed to achieve that.


Transfer the bean blend to your cooking vessel, and slide that bad boy into the oven.


Cooking time will be at least 3 hours and may be longer. Check beans and give a stir after the first hour, and then about every 30 minutes.


If your beans look too dry, add bean broth 1/2 cup at a time and stir well to fully incorporate.


Beans are done when they’re tender, bubbling nicely, and at the consistency you like – some go for a wetter bean, some drier – do what you like best.

New England baked beans
Urban’s New England baked beans


Serve nice and hot, and accept the myriad accolades from your adoring diners.

Ragù alla Bolognese

It’s almost the winter solstice, and comfort food is called for. There’s no better time for low and slow – something that’ll make the shack smell wonderful all day, and seriously hit the spot at dinner. Pasta alla Bolognese is the ticket – There’s history behind this dish, and also some important caveats about doing it right – if you’re going to call it pasta alla Bolognese, that is.

Pasta alla Bolognese


Bologna is up in the middle of the cuff of the Italian boot, anchoring the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s an ancient Etruscan city that’s changed hands a few times – both Celts and Romans made it theirs for a while. Bologna is gorgeous and well preserved, famous for architecture and the oldest university in the world, the Università di Bologna, established in 1088 AD. It’s a city of music and culture and food, including the deservedly famous ragù that carries its name.


And what a ragù it is, which leads to our first caveat – what we’re making here is not just Bolognese, it’s Ragù alla Bolognese, or if you wish, sauce in the Bolognese style. It is one of the legendary Italian ragùs, as anointed by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina – well, by the Bologna chapter thereof, anyway… The etymology of ragù is French, from ragout, meaning pretty much any sauce where proteins and vegetables are stewed. Meat sauces in Emilia-Romagna definitely predated whatever French influence might have taken place, and it wasn’t until the early 19th century that recipes for ragù appeared that more or less mirror the modern day versions.


As with all great dishes, there really isn’t one classic ragù alla Bolognese, because everyone’s Momma makes the best. Naturally, other regions of Italy take umbrage to claims that ragù alla Bolognese is better than what they make. This battle is nowhere more pronounced than between Bologna and Naples, where the equally delightful ragù alla Napolitana hails from. That said, (at least in this country), if you google ‘ragù alla,’ the overwhelming result will be Bolognese, with a smattering of Napolitana and maybe a Genovese or two, (and by all means, you should explore them all.)


Like ‘salsa,’ ragù is a broad word – it too means sauce in essence, but it also speaks to the way a ragù is made. In northern Italy, the meat is usually ground or finely minced, with sautéed vegetables in a meat stock that gradually reduces over the low and slow cook. The protein might by beef, poultry, lamb, or wild game, and often includes offal. And here’s Caveat Number Two, in a proper ragù alla Bolognese, the tomato content is quite a bit less than you likely think it is – it really is a meat sauce.

In the south, where the Napolitana style reigns, the proteins are cut larger – beef, pork, or sausage, cooked low and slow in veggies and plenty of tomato. The meat is often removed and served separately, while the ragù goes over fresh pasta.

Ragù alla Napolitana


Caveat Number Three – Despite what that google search may show you, there is absolutely no such thing as ‘authentic spaghetti Bolognese’ – In Bologna, you will never, ever see that. What you will find is ragù over fresh tagliatelle, a long pasta a bit wider and thicker than fettuccine – It’s great to make at home too.

If you’re not up for that, there is a wealth of good fresh pasta out there these days – and if that doesn’t work, then a short, ridged dry variety, like rigatoni, penne rigate, or conchiglie (aka shells), will work great too. The diff between spaghetti and tagliatelle may seem nitpicky, but it ain’t – it’s truly seminal to the overall flavor and texture of the finished dish.


So, what meat to use? Start with beef for your first run. If you have a butcher, (and you probably do, even if it’s your local grocery store – just ask them), or the capability to grind your own, you can do up something special, which needn’t be fancy by the way – chuck is prefect for this dish. If not, fear not – fresh 80%-20% ground beef will do fine. Don’t go any leaner than that, as a fundamental sweetness of the ragù depends on the fat content.


Ragù is a study in low and slow – sautéing, sweating, and braising all play a part. The intention is to get as much as possible out of the ingredients and into an integrated sauce. As such, you don’t need to add any kind of stock when you make this – it’ll make its own for as long as it’s needed, and in the end run, much of the extra liquid will be absorbed. When you plan on making this dish, pencil in a good 5+ hours for the process, (and all day is better yet).

Don’t fret if you gotta go do an errand or two though – any good Bolognese Mamma will tell you it’s fine to shut things off for a bit, go do your thing, and kick it back in gear a bit later – so long as it gets the overall cooking time it needs.


What to cook your ragù in? In Emilia-Romagna, many a Nonna would tell you that earthenware is the only thing that’ll do. Not everyone has the wherewithal for stovetop clay cookery, (though if you do, you most certainly should). If you don’t, then choose a heavy vessel that retains heat well – a cast iron Dutch oven or deep skillet is perfect.


As for wine, you’ve really gotta have it in this dish. Tradition holds with the ubiquitous ‘dry white,’ but you really can use what you have and like – really – you’re going to make this yours, and you get to choose.


Many recipes call for imported Italian plum tomatoes – That might be the thing to do in the middle of winter, but if you’ve got access to fresh Roma’s then use those – I don’t care where they’re from or what they’re named, fresh beats canned, every time. If you do have to go canned, check out our post on who’s better and who’s best.


When it comes to seasoning, those Bolognese Nonnas often use nothing but salt and pepper, depending on fresh ingredients to carry the day. That’s totally cool, and delicious, but if you like an herbaceous note or two in there as I do, add one. Caveat Number Four is this – do not leave the nutmeg out, and if you can, get a fresh whole one and grate a little into the dish – it’s key to the signature flavor of true ragù alla Bolognese.


Final note – the process outlined below is important. This can perhaps be best summed up in a question from my friend, Russ Robinson, who wrote in response to an image of this sauce cooking, ‘I am a huge fan of scratch Bolognese. A few times I’ve ended up with bitter red sauce. I can throw sugar at it. but I’m thinking some step was missed in the process early. Ideas?’ I told him that I knew exactly why, and that all would be revealed herein – as it shall be. Take note that there’s nothing really exotic in here – the real magic is in the technique.


This recipe will make plenty for 2-4 folks, with leftovers likely, because it’s even better the next day.

Urban’s Ragù alla Bolognese


1 1/2 Pounds ground Beef, (you certainly can go with beef & pork if you like)

4-6 fresh Roma Tomatoes

1 small yellow Onion

2-3 stalks fresh Celery

2-3 fresh Carrots

2-3 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Cup Whole Milk (or cream, if you’re feeling frisky)

1 Cup Wine (drier is better, but really – use what you like)

2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter

Whole Nutmeg (ground is OK)

Sea Salt (or kosher)

Black Pepper

1 Tablespoon Oregano


1 Pound good Pasta

Parmigiano-Regiano or Pecorino Romano Cheese


It’s a good idea to use a bunch of bowls and cups to arrange your ingredients.


Trim, peel and dice about 1 1/2 cups of onion.


Trim and dice about 3/4 cup each of celery and carrot. If you have celery leaves, separate and mince or chiffonade cut those.


Trim, peel and mince garlic.


Rough chop tomatoes, then process in a bowl with a stick blender to a sauce – A blender is fine for this too.


Portion milk and wine, (separately)


Set up your full mise en place right beside your stove.


In a heavy stock pot over medium heat, add the oil and 2 tablespoons of butter – allow to melt and heat through.


Add the carrot and sweat for about 2-3 minutes, stirring steadily.


Bring heat up to medium high and add onion and celery – sauté until the onion starts to become translucent but not browned, about 2-3 minutes – stir steadily to thoroughly coat the veggies in the fat.


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


Add the wine and stir the veggies until the raw alcohol smells dissipates, about 2 minutes.


Transfer everything from the pot to a bowl.


Add the meat to the stock pot – season with a generous three finger pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper.


Mix the seasoning in while working the meat to break it down into smaller pieces – The salt helps extract liquid from the meat, making that more available to the sauce, so don’t skip this step.


When the meat is starting to brown and has lost most of its raw red color, add the milk and turn the heat down to medium low.


Simmer the meat and milk, stirring gently, until all the milk has been absorbed by the meat, about 4-6 minutes, but really, as long as it takes – This step is critical to get real Bolognese and to avoid what happened to Russ – allowing the meat to cook with and fully absorb the milk prevents the acidic wine and tomato from creating a bitter sauce. There’s a subtle softness and sweetness to Bolognese done right that can be achieved no other way.


Add a grating of fresh nutmeg, about a 1/4 teaspoon, and stir to incorporate – The smells you get at this point are pretty heavenly.


Add the veggies and oil/butter blend back into the meat and stir to incorporate.


Add the tomatoes, celery leaf, and oregano. And stir well to fully incorporate all your ingredients.


Turn your heat down to low, and cook uncovered for at least 4 hours, and longer is not only fine, it’s better.


What you want is an occasional lazy bubble forming in the sauce – no hotter. This is genuine low and slow, and why we want that heavy, heat-holding pot to cook it in.


What you’re after in your final product is a sauce where the fat is visibly starting to separate out, as you see in the image below.


If your sauce dries out while cooking, add about a half cup of water and stir that in as needed – but make sure that your finished products conforms to the sentence above.


Taste and adjust seasoning.


Boil and drain your pasta, leaving a tablespoon of water in the pot.

Return half the pasta to the pot with the burner off.


Add a tablespoon of butter to the pasta and toss to coat.


Add about 2 cups of sauce to the pasta, and toss to incorporate.


Serve with freshly shaved Parm or romano and crusty bread on the side, (to sop the sauce up with), and a nice glass of Italian red.

Crab Bisque

One of the great joys of cooking is receiving a thoughtful gift from a friend. When you’re blessed to live near the cold Pacific Ocean as we are, that often means something from the sea. So it was recently when a coworker of Ms blessed us with freshly caught Dungeness crab. It was a cold December weekend, so something really comforting came immediately to mind – crab bisque.

Urban’s Crab Bisque

I posted some images of the cooking process before I wrote this, and a couple people asked, ‘what’s the difference between chowder and bisque?’ It’s a good question – Both often contain shellfish, (and frankly bisque must to be bisque). Past that, chowder features big rustic hunks of ingredients, while bisque is creamy, smooth, and oh so rich.

Bisque is a strained or puréed soup, with stock made from shells, thickened with rice, cream, or roux. Its roots are in eighteen century France, albeit then it contained game birds – it wasn’t until the next century that shellfish made their way into the dish. There are numerous claims that the dish originated in the Bay of Biscay, which is likely hooey – the etymology of the word bisque is bis cuit, meaning twice cooked. For the record, soup that doesn’t contain shellfish that are called bisque is nothing more than a marketing ploy – ‘Whatever Bisque’ sells a bunch more product than ‘Whatever Soup’ does.

Over on this side of the pond, it took bisque a while to catch on. In colonial New England, lobster, oysters, and clams were so plentiful they were often referred to as ‘poverty food,’ and were not relished by many. It wasn’t until the 19th century that they became truly de rigueur.

Making bisque at home has an undeserved reputation as a fussy, even scary process. Fact is, it’s a gas and not at all difficult. While the stock needs simmer time to come into its own, the actual soup making phase is quite quick. You’ll need cooked crustacean for this, including the shells – which means you’ll need to do some disassembly prep, but that too is part of the fun.

The stock, freshly made from scratch, is the real heartbeat of this dish. The combination of crab shells and an aromatic base is intoxicating – it’s what makes bisque great. Traditionally, the aromatics are mire poix, but as you’ll see from our post on the subject, there are lots of options out there for you to play with.

There is often booze in bisque – usually wine, sherry, or brandy (cognac for instance). It’s there to impart a flavor note – some would say it’s mandatory, but really it’s up to you. Same goes for what you use. Tradition is fine, but add what you like – if you have a red that you think would be nice in this dish, use it, even if it ‘should be a dry white wine’. I’ve had bourbon crab bisque that was to die for, and añejo tequila adds a subtle smokey sweet note.if you don’t like booze, fear not – it’ll be delightful without it.

If you go with wine or sherry, simmer it until the alcohol and most of the moisture is cooked off – you can add this step to the process after you’ve made the stock and before you sauté the veggies. If you decide on high proof stuff, flambé that – flaming it will achieve the same end as simmering wine.

Seasoning your bisque is another perfect vehicle for self expression. Stateside, a lot of folks swear by Old Bay, and you wouldn’t go wrong with that. Old Bay has a lot of stuff in it, with major notes of bay leaf, black pepper, cayenne, salt, mustard, and celery seed, to warm minor notes of allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon – Knowing that, you could certainly pull out a few of those for your own blend, if you don’t feel like going the full Monty. If you want to try something a bit more traditional, fines herbes would be a great choice – major notes of parsley and chive are married to minors of tarragon and chervil – it’s an absolute classic in French cooking, for good reason.

For prepping your crab, here’s my routine – crack and harvest meat from body joints and major claws and legs, then leave whatever is in all the little nitpicky sections in place and use that for stock. You’ll get plenty of meat, and glorious stock as well.

NOTE – This is a two part stock, one done very briefly with shells only, and the other done as a basic veggies stock. David Berkowitz turned me onto a Cooks Illustrated article wherein they experimented with getting the most intense flavor from shell stock – long story short, it turns out that the compounds responsible for making things smell and taste like what we want from shell stocks are generally quite volatile, and will dissipate if simmered for longer than about 5 minutes – hence the two step approach.

Urban’s Crab Bisque


5 Cups Water

4-8 ounces cooked Dungeness Crab

Cooked Shells from 2-3 Crabs

2 Cups Heavy Cream

1 Cup Dry White Wine

1 medium Onion

1 medium Tomato

3-4 stalks Celery

1/2 Red Bell Pepper

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter

2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste

2 teaspoons Fines Herbes

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

Sea Salt

Fresh ground Pepper

Peel, trim and dice onion.


Trim and dice celery, reserve tops and leaves for stock.

Mire poix


Trim and dice red pepper and tomato.

In a heavy stock pot over medium heat, add crab shells and enough water to cover by about 2”.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a brisk simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour shell stock through a single mesh strainer into a mixing bowl and set aside.

In the stock pot back over medium high heat, ad 1/4 cup of onion, the celery tops and leaf, the tomato, the bay leaves, a three finger pinch of salt, and 8-10 twists of pepper.

Stock for crab bisque

Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for at least an hour, and two is better.

Remove pot from stove and carefully pour the broth through a single mesh strainer.

Base stock for crab bisque


Return the pot to the stove over medium heat. Add the wine and simmer until the raw alcohol scent dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.

Return strained stock to pot and bring to an aggressive simmer.

Crab bisque


Add 1/2 cup onion, the celery and bell pepper, and simmer until the stock reduces to about 2 cups – about 15 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium low and add the shell stock, tomato paste and cream to the stock and whisk to incorporate.

Crab bisque


With an immersion blender, carefully pulse until you have a smooth, uniform consistency.

Turn heat down to a bare simmer, add fines herbs, and allow everything to marry, whisking occasionally, until the bisque thicken a bit, about 10-12 minutes.

Add crab meat and butter, whisk to incorporate, and allow to heat through, about 3-5 minutes.

Crab bisque


Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.


Serve nice and hot with crusty bread or oyster crackers and a nice glass of wine.

Gastriques

While we’re on the subject of sauces that seriously elevate your game, we must touch on gastriques. Not only are they fairly simple and quick, they’re delicious – and they give you another tragically hip French culinarily word to casually toss about.

Urban’s Sweet Cherry Gastrique

Gastriques are a combination of caramelized sugars and acids. They’re great for several reasons – Standing alone, they add a delightful zing to dang near anything – meat, poultry, seafood, tofu, veggies and spuds to name a few. Added to a basic pan sauce, they’ll elevate the flavor profile and add a really nice shine, (we do eat with our eyes, after all). They’ll also add depth and complexity to other sauces, soups, or stews. Of course they’re also perfect to play ‘what have I got that needs to be used’ with – If your kitchen’s like ours, fruit can find itself in that category fairly often, and a lot of that works wonderfully in these sauces.

Goodies for a cherry gastrique

If the description of a gastrique makes you think of sweet and sour sauce, you’re spot on. Many cuisines employ this trick in a dizzying array – whether it’s gastrique, sweet and sour, agrodolce, agre dulce, Thai sweet chile sauce, al pastor, hoisin, Worcestershire, or catsup, they’re all the same concept – Think about what most American barbecue sauces use for primary ingredients, and there you are again. Just as with those examples, a gastrique can be anything from a thin sauce to a very thick one, depending on what you like and want it to do.

These days, we’re blessed with a whole lot of options when it comes to sugars and vinegars – I see white, brown, dark brown, Mexican, rock, turbinado sugars, as well as honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, and various simple syrups we’ve put together. In vinegar, I see white distilled, cider, balsamic, white balsamic, white wine, red wine, sherry, port, malt, Japanese rice, Chinese Chinkiang (black, plumb, and white), banana and pineapple from Rancho Gordo, and likely some more I missed. You probably don’t have all that at hand, but the point is that you can if you want to. Lighter sugars give lighter flavor, even when caramelized, whereas using molasses means you won’t have to caramelize much at all. Light vinegars yield light taste, while intense fruit varieties, or smoky black Chinkiang are much bolder. Gastriques are a delight for experimentation.

All that stuff aside, a simple gastrique is fast. Let’s say you’re cooking beef, and you just want a little sparkle added to that – sugar and red wine or vinegar will do the trick – couldn’t be simpler. Add dried cherries or cranberries and you’ve got something bolder. With any variant, make sure that what you’re using tastes good to you. Taste the vinegar and the sugar, so you know exactly what to expect.

Booze, especially good stuff made from fruit, can make spectacular sauces – brandy in any of its iterations is wonderful, (plain old brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, and so on). Port and sherry will too. The cooking process will remove the raw alcohol flavor, and if you use fairly high proof stuff, you can flambé it to do that quickly without losing flavor – and it’s fun – just don’t burn your house down.

Damn near any fruit will work great in a gastrique. You can mash, blend, or purée before you add if you want, or you can let stuff cook in the sauce – it’ll release all its goodies that way, and ripe fruit generally cooks down quite quickly. Dried can be reconstituted first, or just tossed in to do its thing. Citrus fruit can simply be squeezed, zested and squeezed, or rough chopped. Do give some thought to what sugar and vinegar you use – heavy versions of either will overwhelm delicate fruit, so pair accordingly.

General caveats – since you’re caramelizing sugars, don’t leave gastriques unattended for long, because those will burn. Cook over medium to medium-low heat. A little butter added at the end of cooking helps the shine stand out. Herbs and spices are fine and go great with all the constituents mentioned – Just choose carefully, and watch your ratios – These should be a minor flavor note, not a knock out punch. Warm spices like cinnamon or allspice go well with stuff you’d expect them to, like apples and peaches. Rosemary or thyme pairs well with berries and citrus, and so on.

Think of the gastrique as specifically providing a tangy element to your overall presentation. For instance, you might use a honey/malt vinegar/tomato/lemon gastrique for a pan sauce made from a whole roasted chicken. Gastriques will keep for a few days refrigerated in an airtight bottle, (repurposed hot sauce bottles are perfect). That said, fresh is best, so Len toward building in small batches that will get used pretty quickly.

Here’s a super simple iteration that you can customize hundreds of ways. You can serve this stand alone, or add a basic pan sauce, as the second version below does.

1/2 Cup Sweet – Sugars, Honey, Agave, Molasses, etc

1 Cup Acid – Vinegars, Wines, Booze, or combinations thereof

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

Pinch of Salt

Add sweet to a sauce or sauté pan over medium heat and cook, whisking steadily, until whatever you’ve used darkens in color, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the acid and whisk thoroughly to incorporate.

Continue cooking and whisking until the sauce reduces to a syrup-like consistency, about 5-10 minutes.

Add the butter and salt, whisk to incorporate, and turn the heat off.

Plate your stuff and add the gastrique.

Sherry Gastrique is made the same way – it’s great for chicken, fish, and veggie dishes and sides. Raspberries also go great with this combination of sweetener and vinegar.

1 Cup Champagne Vinegar

1 Cup Amber Agave Nectar

1/2 Cup Dry Sherry

Urban’s Sweet Cherry Gastrique

This is great for lots of things – from beef, pork, or poultry, to Brussels sprouts. Varying the sweets and acids will yield whole new iterations.

1 Cup Sweet Cherries (dried, fresh, whatever you’ve got)

1/2 Cup Broth (see below for more on this)

1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar

1/2 Cup Blackstrap Molasses

1 Ounce Unsalted Butter

Pinch of Salt

If you’ve cooked a protein, grab the vessel you cooked things in, put it over medium heat, and add 3/4 cup water.

Scrape all the naughty bits off the pan bottom, whisk to incorporate, and let that reduce to about 1/2 cup.

A simple pan sauce

If you didn’t cook anything worthy of using, any stock will do – Match that to what you’re making the sauce for, (veggie stock for veggies, beef for beef, and so on.

If you braised, slow roasted, etc, use 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid.

When your stock is heated through, add the molasses and whisk to thoroughly incorporate.

Add the vinegar and cherries and whisk to incorporate.

Reducing a sweet cherry gastrique

Let the sauce cook at a bare simmer until you reach the consistency you want – from fairly light to very syrupy is a range of about 5 to 15 minutes cooking time.

Sweet Cherry Gastrique

Plate your meal, add the gastrique, and smile smugly while your diners swoon and make yum yum noises.

Pot roast with a sweet cherry gastrique

Blackberry Gastrique goes great with beef, pork, and meaty mushrooms like porcini. Blueberries and cranberries also are great with this combination of sweetener and vinegar. Again, this will go great with a pan sauce version like the cherry one above.

1 Cup Malt Vinegar

1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar

1 Cup fresh Blackberries