Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Chinese five spice powder – Got it in your spice cabinet? Odds are good that you do, but they’re also good that you haven’t used it for anything other than that one Chinese recipe you tried way back when and bought the stuff for – Am I right or am I right? I’m here today to fix that, and to tell you why you should -Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.

Classic Five Spice, although more is OK
Classic Five Spice, although more is OK

So, what exactly is five spice? That depends, frankly, on where in China you ask the question. This blend is relatively ubiquitous in Chinese cooking, and culinary regions from all points on the compass points lay claim to its origin. There is, however, some general agreement about the intention of that ancient founder – To provide the culinary equivalent of Unified Field Theory – one powder to rule them all – Five spice touches on sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – A blend for all things, if you will.

Now, that said, five spice is as unique as any other legendary thing. What that means is that every home cook, restaurant chef, and spice purveyor has their tried and true personal blend, and each and every one of those is the best, no questions asked. Truth be told, they’re all correct, because when you make it yours, its exactly what you want it to be – That’s the beauty of discovery and refinement. The end result of today’s exercise should be just that for y’all.

The big question, of course, is this – What are the Five Spices? Turns out, the title is a bit misleading. Take a look at the ingredients on the commercial stuff out there and you’ll find anywhere between five and ten ingredients – Interesting, yeah? That’s because ‘Five Spice’ speaks to the five flavors the blend contains – Sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – Cover those, and the number of ingredients used to achieve it is open for interpretation.

The generally recognized standard however, is star anise, clove, Chinese cinnamon (Cassia), Szechuan pepper, and fennel seed, but again, you might also find regular cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, licorice, anise, turmeric, black pepper, sea salt, and mandarin orange peel as well. There’s nothing wrong with all that, frankly, though as with all things in discovery, it’s best to go to the classic roots first, and then branch out to make it yours.

For us here in the U.S., the blend has an exotic feel to it that can be a real treat for breaking up the ol’ routine. The combination of what Chinese culinary tradition refers to as hot (cinnamon and Szechuan pepper), and cold (fennel and clove), tastes does a really cool double duty with meats, especially fatty stuff – It highlights richness as it cuts through the fat – A neat trick, that.

If you have Asian grocers in your area, check them out and see if they make their own blends – If not, they’ll likely have a favorite that they sell – Diving into those is like touring the regions and towns folks come from – You’ll get a different swing on things from each one.

So, what exactly would you use this stuff on when you whip it out? The quick answer is that five spice is tailor made for proteins – Beef, pork, and poultry will all shine, (and frankly, you can’t make great char sui pork without it), as will tofu, and beans. For dang near anything you’re going to grill, barbecue, or smoke, it makes a fantastic rub. Five spice does great in flour, starch, or bread crumb coatings for fried foods, too. And frankly, there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t go great with savory eggs and veggies. And believe it or not, it’s great for baking too – Add it to a savory scone, pancake, or waffle recipe, for instance.

A note of caution for using five spice on things other than fatty meats – The blend can overpower a recipe really quickly, so a little bit goes a long way. The blend does best when it has some time to work, so employing it in marinades and rubs works best.

The gist of all this is that while five spice is a necessity for many Chinese dishes, it’s great to think outside the box and try it with other stuff as well – It’s easy enough to add a dab to a sample of something you’re cooking – A great way to expand your horizons. This is a blend that, while fundamentally simple, belies that label with a truly fascinating and complex palette of flavors.

Here’s a basic recipe to get you started – Again, use it as a springboard to tailor your own custom blend. As with all herbs and spices, freshness and quality are critical. Harkening back to that bottle you’ve got in your cabinet, chances are good it’s old, and maybe not the best stuff you could find, right? So, go to a known, high quality purveyor like World Spice, Penzey’s, or Penderey’s and buy your stuff there – They really truly don’t cost more than the junk in most stores, and the quality is far superior. Finally, it’s always a good idea to buy whole spices when available as well – They’ll stay fresher longer.

House made Five Spice
House made Five Spice

Classic 5 Spice Blend

1 Tablespoon whole Szechuan Peppercorns
3 whole Star Anise
1 stick Cassia Bark (AKA Chinese Cinnamon)
2 teaspoons whole Cloves
2 teaspoons whole Fennel Seed

Allow a dry, cast iron skillet to heat through over medium heat.

Add Szechuan pepper, star anise, cloves, and fennel seed to the pan. Toast the spices until they’re notably fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Keep the spices moving constantly to avoid scorching.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Add the toasted spices and cassia to a spice grinder, blender, mortar and pestle, or whatever you use to grind spices. Pulse the blend to a uniform rough powder.

Store in a clean glass container with an air tight lid – Keep in mind that all spices like a cool, dark, dry environment for storage. Spices are good for about 6 months, properly stored.

 

Here’s a couple of rubs to get you started.

5 Spice Java Dry Rub

2 teaspoons 5 Spice Powder
1 teaspoon fresh ground Coffee
1 teaspoon Dark Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

5 Spice Wet Rub

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
Juice & Zest from 1 small Lemon
1 Tablespoon 5 Spice
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

 

Maque Choux – A Cajun Twist on Succotash

I came across an FB post by Diane Whatley Nix, a friend on a cooking group called Wok Wednesdays, shared an image of Maque Choux made in a wok. Instantly, I was shown a flash of brilliance for the cooking method, and reminded of a delicious dish I hadn’t made since leaving Texas six years ago. Note: If you’re into wok cooking, then you need to check out the group – It’s dedicated to cooking your way through Grace Young’s The Breath of a Wok, and it’s a serious gas!

Maque Choux (AKA mack shoe, muck shoe, muck show, and so on), is the Cajun version of that venerable side dish, succotash. The name may sound French, but it’s probably a Creole derivation of a native term. This is a great side dish at any time of the year, but especially in late summer, when all of the veggie constituents are right outside in the garden. 

Many folks know of succotash and assume it to be southern, but that would be incorrect – Succotash came from some of the original occupants of New England – The name derives from a native term, possibly the Wampanoag word msíckquatash, (boiled corn kernels), or the Narragansett sohquttahhash, (broken corn kernels).

Succotash was, and is, a base of fresh corn, some kind of shell bean, and a little protein – nowadays, most commonly bacon, but back then in New England, fish or game. Any number of additional veggies and herbs might be added, like tomatoes, sweet peppers, chiles, fresh herbs and other seasonings – all of which are New World foods and therefore likely as authentic as anything else. There are a dizzying number of ‘authentic’ succotash and maque choux recipes out there, but the truth is that damn near anything you feel like doing will be authentic enough – These are dishes designed to use what was ready at the time, and later down the line, to clean out a fridge, maybe.

Succotash was popular because it was filling and nutritious. That base mix of corn and beans is rich in protein, carbohydrates, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s still a popular side dish at many a New England Thanksgiving dinner, and was likely a main course at that original dinner hosted by the locals, to which a ragtag band of Puritans and Strangers were invited. Those settlers quickly learned that the key base ingredients lent themselves readily to drying, which meant a lifesaving, year round food supply for a struggling population.

As us white usurpers spread across the new land, (including my direct ancestor, who arrived in 1636), succotash came along for the ride, morphed by local crops as it travelled. In the south, dang near any corn and bean combo that’s fried up in lard or butter is called succotash, albeit the vast majority of the time, the bean in question will be a lima, and there will almost always be okra.

Those migrants included the Acadiens, French people exiled to the Canadian Maritimes by the Seven Years war between Britain and France in the middle of the eighteenth century. While many Acadiens remain in the Maritimes, a sizable group made their way south to warmer climes, specifically, Louisiana, which was a French colonial holding since about the time the Puritans hit the beach at Plymouth. And of course, Cajuns are in Louisiana to this day, and from that many good things have come, including maque choux.

Study up some on maque choux, and you’ll see one glaring difference from traditional succotash – It don’t have no beans on board. That’s not to say you couldn’t, or that beans aren’t popular in that neck of the woods, because you could and they are -But, when you see how the dish morphed, you’ll understand right away – It’s because of the only aromatic base that we here in the colonies can lay claim to – The Holy Trinity.

We have the Cajun folk to thank for our only original combo – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, (albeit when used in soups and stews and whatnot, some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with it as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things). Now, the key to aromatic bases is the ratio, and in that regard, there are a couple of camps for the Trinity – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% each pepper and celery. For my mind, it kinda depends on when you’re making it. If we’re talking the non-growing season, I’d go for the heavy onion version, but if you’re in the sweet spot, where those things are right out there in your garden, I’d absolutely opt for equal shares.

As for the protein, again, you can do what you like with no shame. I like local, smoky pepper bacon myself, but down south, a lot of folks are partial to andouille sausage, and you’d be hard pressed to go wrong there. Honestly, anything you’ve got that needs using would be lovely, from pulled pork to shredded chicken, (or even beans.)

Finally, the wok as a cooking method/vessel is simply brilliant. As Diane noted, making maque choux in one adds a perfect crispy crunch to the dish that you’d be hard pressed to get anywhere else. It’s also fast, and fun, and very pretty, so give that a go. This recipe will make enough for four, and maybe some leftovers

Maque Choux a la Urban

3 ears fresh Sweet Corn

4 strips Pepper Bacon

1/2 small sweet Onion

1-2 stalks fresh Celery, including leaves

2 Anaheim Chiles

1 fresh Tomato

2 cloves fresh Garlic

4-5 fresh Chives

1 sprig fresh Thyme

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil

A few shakes Go To Seasoned Salt, (I prefer our smoky version)

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Mise en place for maque choux
Mise en place for maque choux

Cut kernels off the corn in two passes – Take the first to roughly cut the kernels in half,then the second to get what’s left – This gets all the corn milk in play and adds a bit more moisture to the mix – Cut the corn into a plate or shallow bowl. If you’re shy getting to the base of the kernels, flip your knife around and use the spine to scrape out those last, sweet bits – And don’t friggin’ cut yourself.

Stack your bacon slices, cut them down the middle lengthwise, then into roughly 1/2” squares.

Dice the onion, celery, and chiles into roughly equal piles.

Slice the tomato – You can gut it if you like, (M is always offended when I leave the guts in…), or not as you please.

Mince the garlic, thyme, and chives.

Set the wok over a medium high flame and heat through –  A drop of water should vaporize pretty much instantaneously when it hits the wok, then you’re ready to go.

Stir fry bacon first - Your wok will thank you
Stir fry bacon first – Your wok will thank you

Stir fry the bacon, stirring steadily with a wooden spoon.

When the bacon is about 3/4 of the way you like it, turn the heat up to high and add the avocado oil. 

When the oil is shimmering, (not smoking – That’s too hot), add the onion, celery and chiles.

adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux
adding the Holy Trinity to maque choux

Stir fry, steadily working the mix to incorporate. When the onions start to turn translucent, add the garlic and stir fry for a minute or so until the raw garlic smell dissipates. 

Final ingredients
Final ingredients

Add the corn and stir fry steadily to heat through and incorporate – If things are getting a bit hot, turn heat down somewhat – I change heat constantly as I cook on a wok, and so can/should you.

Stir fry the mix until the corn starts to get a little crust and the smells are driving you nuts.

Add the tomato, chive and thyme, a few shakes of seasoned salt and a grew twists of pepper, and stir fry to incorporate all the seasonings.

Maque Choux a la Urban
Maque Choux a la Urban

Transfer to a bowl and serve hot.

Chimichangas Über Alles

Ah, the noble chimichanga. Noble? Noble?! Yes, you read that right – here’s a little ode to one of the best damn vehicles for leftovers there is. Sure, we might assume it’s a mongrel member of the Fake Mex Food Club, designed only to fool gringoes into a simulacrum of adventurous eating – but I think we’d be dead wrong.

There’s a raft of origin stories for the chimi, all based in U.S. Tex Mex bastions. Whether it’s the owner of El Charro in Tucson accidentally dropping a burrito in the deep fat frier and uttering a Mexican curse that lead to the naming of the dish, or Woody Johnson of Macayo’s in Phoenix experimenting back in ‘46, they’re likely all a bit of a tall tale. You can bet dimes to dollars they originated in Mexico.

Fill a flour tortilla with frijoles, queso, picadillo, adobada, machaca, seca, pollo, fish or shellfish – that’s the root of a chimichanga. The name probably is a thinly veiled gringo teaser, but who cares when they’re delicious?

Great chimis needn’t be bad for you. You can bake, or as I prefer, shallow fry to crisp and then finish in the oven – that marries the delightful crunch of a crisp tortilla with a perfect hot filling, and avoids the hassle and greasiness of deep frying. What you choose to stuff with will also have obvious bearing on how healthy your finished dish is.

Chimis are perfect for repurposing leftovers. While a traditional stuffing theme will certainly be a nod to Mexican staples, you can make them out anything you want – green chicken curry chimi? Hell yes. Stuff one with veggies, rice, beans and cheese, and you’ve got a delicious, healthy dish. From chicken wings to char siu pork, or firm tofu to refried beans, your imagination is the limit.

When you’re ready to stuff your chimis, layer ingredients in ratios that yield a harmonious blend – there’s no hard and fast rule, it’s all what floats your boat. How much to stuff is largely dependent on the size and elasticity of your chosen tortilla, but avoid overstuffing to a silly degree – that just leads to filling leaking out during cooking, or gods forbid, to CCSF – That’s Catastrophic Chimichanga Structural Failure – and nobody wants to see that…

The typical mix is beans, rice, veggies and cheese, and another protein if you have something that needs to get used. For veggies, you can’t go wrong with onion, garlic, chile, and tomato, but any mix is fine – you can sauté them prior to assembly, but if you go with my two step method, you don’t need to.

For a traditional version, Mexican cheeses are what you want – Asadero, Chihuahua, Manchego, or Oaxaca for filling, and Queso Blanco, Cotija, or Enchilado for topping would be great choices – and they’re easier to find these days with the flowering of local Latin groceries.

If you’ve attempted chimis and exacted less than stellar results, it’ll come as no surprise that there are techniques you need to employ to achieve consistent and attractive results – and yeah, it matters – we eat with our eyes, ya know. There are four points of order to avoid a frustratingly sloppy chimi, and they’re as follows.

1. Fresh tortillas are your best option – they’re far more pliable and tastier than store bought stuff. Pliability is critical to a successful chimi, so if you’re using store bought, here’s your solution – wrap them in a clean, lightly moistened kitchen towel, put them on a plate, and then microwave for 30 seconds – that’ll give you fairly flexible tortillas to work with. Works great for burritos, too.

2. Get your mise en place together, and set out a generously sized station for assembly. Having everything portioned into bowls makes the process more efficient, less frustrating, and far less messy.

3. The tuck – how to properly stuff eludes a lot of folks, so don’t feel bad if you’re one of ‘em. Think of the tortilla as an unfolded envelope – you want to stuff the lower middle section of the tortilla, leaving room on both sides, some below, and a bit more than that above. Next, fold the bottom over your fillings, then the sides over the bottom, and finally, bring the top flap over all, and you’re there. You can seal with a little egg wash, but once you get the hang of it, you won’t need it. Line them up, prepped for cooking.

4. As mentioned above, I firmly believe you’ll get the most consistent flavor blend and crunch from a two step cooking process – a quick shallow fry, then a quick bake. That’ll also give you ingredients that are thoroughly heated through – something often lacking in the deep fried version.

It’s a simple deal – preheat your oven to 350° F, then heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Add chimis two at a time, and fry them just long enough to get a golden brown crust on the tortillas, flipping with a spatula to get every side done. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment, and bake for 20 minutes, and you’re done.

Top chimis with whatever you like – crema, pico de gallo, salsa, lime wedges, cilantro, fresh tomato or onion. Fresh greens make a perfect bedding – we do mixed lettuces and cabbage – use what you like best. Serve ‘em with an ice cold Mexican beer and enjoy.

Urban’s Chicken Florentine

It’s June, believe it or not, and even here in the Great Northwet, things are starting to warm up. This means that greens are starting to appear in our garden – lettuces and spinach among ‘em. Blessed with a big ass harvest of the latter, M asked, ‘what can we do with spinach other than salad and Greek?’ That’s when chicken Florentine popped into my head.


Funny thing about this dish – while it shows up at Olive Garden and plenty of other faux Italian joints, chicken Florentine is neither Italian in general nor from Florence specifically. Like General Tso’s, it’s a dish likely invented in America, meant to look ethnic and mysterious. Fact is, you won’t find it in Italy – it’d be shunned like pineapple on pizza.

This doesn’t mean it’s not a great dish, because it certainly can be – and it is a wonderful use of fresh spinach. What it does mean is that most of the so-called rules can frankly be ignored. You don’t need cremini mushrooms or some specific pasta shape for your version to by ‘authentic’, because there ain’t no authentic – whatever you like is just fine.

I’ve got no idea where spinach came into the mix as ‘Florentine’ by the way. It’s not really a signature of anything in particular, but it is tasty. There certainly are Italian creamed spinach dishes, and the French version of spinach au gratin comes to mind as well, but that’s about as far as I get – no matter – it all eats.

Chicken Florentine is fundamentally an Alfredo derivative if anything, so maybe somebody harkened back to Catherine de’ Medici and her imported French chefs as the inspiration for the naming of this dish. The Italians call the sauce besciamella, aka bechamel – your basic cream sauce, or alfredo if you like – they’re fundamentally the same thing.

That said, what a great chicken Florentine needs is a well made sauce, and that means a solid aromatic and stock base. The technique you employ, as well as the ingredients, will yield a great dish. Great Florentine should be a stock-based sauce with a little cream, not a cream only or cream heavy thing.

Here’s my swing at it, and I’ll tell ya, it was stellar – you can ask M and Casey if you don’t believe me…

Urban’s Chicken Florentine

Will feed 3 to 4 with leftovers likely

1 1/2 to 2 pounds Chicken Thighs (skinned, boned preferred)

1 Pound Dry Pasta of your choice

2 Cups Stock (Chicken or Veggie)

1/2 Cup Heavy Cream

1/2 large Yellow Onion

1/2 Red Bell Pepper

1 small Roma Tomato

1/2 small lemon

6-8 cloves fresh Garlic

3-4 packed Cups fresh Spinach

1/4 Cup Parmigiano Cheese

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter

2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour

1 teaspoon Turkish Oregano

1 teaspoon Crushed Sage

1 Turkish Bay Leaf

6-8 twists black Pepper

3 finger pinch Salt

If needed, skin and debone chicken, then pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.

Peel, trim and dice onion, pepper, and tomato.

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Fine grate cheese.

In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, add oil and heat through.

Add chicken and flour to a large mixing bowl and coat chicken evenly.

Add floured chicken to the hot skillet, and sauté on one side until a golden brown crust forms, about 4-6 minutes.

Flip pieces once and cook other side as you did the first, about 3-5 minutes.

Carefully remove chicken to a plate.

Add butter to the skillet and allow to melt.

Add onion and bell pepper to the skillet and sauté until the onions are semi-translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

Add garlic and tomato, and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2-3 minutes.

Deglaze the pan with a cup of chicken stock, scraping all the naughty bits from the pan bottom.

Add the second cup of stock, and squeeze in the juice from half a lemon.

Reduce heat to a bare simmer, add bay leaf, and simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes.

Bring a stock pot with well salted water to a boil over high heat, and set a colander in your sink.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook until al dente, about 5-7 minutes depending on what you use.

Drain pasta into colander, then return it to the stock pot and cover, unheated.

Add chicken, parmigiano, and cream to the simmering stock and stir well to incorporate.

Add oregano and sage, pepper and pinch of salt to the sauce and stir well.

Simmer sauce for about 10 minutes, until it thickens slightly and coats a spoon.

Toss in the spinach and stir to incorporate well.

Lay a bed of pasta in a shallow bowl, add a piece of chicken or two, and a generous portion of sauce.

Devour and make yum yum noises.

Serious Vinegar

What is vinegar, anyway? Truth be told, it’s nothing more than spoiled booze in some form or another. While pedestrian vinegar is plentiful and cheap, there’re two things you notice right away when you check out the good stuff in stores – the bottles are small and the prices are really high. What better reason would you need to make your own?

Great vinegars, from Aceto Balsamico de Modena and Vinagre de Shiraz to Zhenjiang and Sukang Baombang, are legendary for a reason, imbued with amazing depth and flavor. These gems power everything from dressings and marinades, gastrique and finishing notes, to soups, stews and much more. If you’re pickling, distilled white or generic cider vinegars are fine, but when you need something special for all that stuff I just mentioned, it’s time to get cracking in your home kitchen.

If you want to get technical, vinegar is a suspended solution of acetic acid in liquid, usually in the 5% to 9% range for culinary use. It’s been around for as long as humans have been making booze, which means something over 5000 years. Pretty much anything you can ferment can be made into vinegar, and that’s good news, because the vast majority of those options are delicious.

Distilled white vinegar, (AKA spirit vinegar or white vinegar), isn’t actually distilled – it’s made from neutral grain spirits – so you can make a vodka, gin or rum based vinegar too. Cider vinegar comes from just that, and with the recent explosion in local cider production, consider how many amazing variants of that you can make – how about a blackberry ginger or blood orange version? Hell yes.

Malt vinegar? Comes from beer – you can convert any bottle or can of beer, ale, stout, or porter into pretty amazing stuff. Wine vinegar? Your cellar and local store is the limit, which means a bunch of options. Any and all of these will be far better than what you can buy, and incredibly easy to make. And we haven’t even talked about fruit yet.

Almost anything with a decent sugar content can be fermented into booze and then vinegar. 5000 years ago, they used dates and palm sap. Today, pretty much any fruit you can think of is used. Two of my favorites in this regard are pineapple and banana, (actually plantain). Both are Mexican specialties, used from Veracruz to the Yucatán for fish, adobado, guisado, salsa, and much more. They’re subtle and delicious, but they’re hard to find and often out of stock, which is what lead to this post. Friends and I thought, why not take a swing at it? We did, the results rocked, and again, it’s easy and fun, (and perfectly safe I’ll add), so I’m sharing it here.

Making home vinegar from scratch is a two stage process, (but really just one long one, broken into two processes.) You don’t actually have to do much, other than monitor what’s happening and make sure everything is going right. If you’re making vinegar from something alcoholic, it’s simpler yet.

Many folks get a bit freaked about about fermenting because it’s ‘dealing with bacteria.’ Approached sensibly, it’s nothing to be worried about. What we employ to make vinegar at home are naturally occurring, beneficial fungus and bacteria – You’d have to be a troglodyte to not have heard all the buzz about good microbes, bacteria, yeast, and the like in recent years – it’s vital to our health, and what we’re using here plays for the right team.

Once we have alcohol, Mother is all we need to make vinegar – Mother is a beneficial bacterial culture, an acetobacter to be exact. Mixed with air, it converts alcohol to acetic acid, which is what gives vinegar it’s delightful tang. You can buy Mother from brewing and winemaking shops, or snag some out of the bottom of a bottle of real deal vinegar, (like Bragg’s here in the states), or you can make your own, and then keep that going with each batch you make, (that’s my preferred method). When mother is happy, you’ll see powdery whitish stuff and even gooey ropes forming in your liquid – this is very desirable, so when you see that, you’ve know you’ve done well.

Let’s start with a super easy one, wine vinegar. For wine, here’s how it works – you’ll need some fine mesh cheesecloth – something like a Grade 80 unbleached cloth would be perfect, and a rubber band.

Select a white or red wine you like that’s in the 10% to 12% alcohol range – that’s the sweet spot for mother to do its thing – higher alcohol content just isn’t, and lower will deliver vinegar that won’t be shelf stable for long.

Open a bottle and pour yourself a glass, you deserve it. Like it? Then onward – Decant the rest into a sterilized quart mason jar, (dishwasher clean is fine).

Now drape a patch of cheesecloth over the top and rubber band that sucker down – the ability for the yeast in the air to get to the wine is critical – no air exchange, no vinegar, (and the cheesecloth will keep fruit flies out of the mix too.)

Set the jar in a warm, relatively dry spot out of direct sunlight, and let ‘er rip – the conversion to vinegar can take anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks, so be patient.

Perform a weekly check of your vinegar-to-be. If you see a whitish scum on top of your wine as things progress, and everything smells good, you’re on your way – that’s vinegar mother forming. If you get any kind of dark surface scum and accompanying bad smells, that’s not good – Scoop all that stuff off and keep going.

Taste your product weekly – when it tastes like vinegar and smells good, you’re there. Transfer the stuff to a clean bottle and cork it – Vinegar eats metal, so clean glass bottles and cork is the way to go.

Let it sit for a couple days, then pull the cork. If you get a pop, that’s CO2 escaping, a sign that your vinegar isn’t quite done yet – put cheesecloth over the bottle top and give it another week – that should do the trick.

If you want to speed things up a smidge, add 1/4 cup of mother laden vinegar to the wine and you’re off to the races – it’ll cut the production time notably.

Love malt vinegar? Grab a couple bottles of beer, ale, porter, or stout of your choice, and do what we did with the wine. Because of the lower alcohol content, homemade malt vinegar generally won’t have the long term shelf stability other stuff will – but no biggy – just make it more often.

Want to build the ultimate home malt vinegar? Go find a locally brewed ale or stout in that 10% to 12% alcohol sweet spot – it’ll make amazing, shelf stable, vinegar – bring some of that back to the brewery and turn them on, you’ll likely get a free beer – maybe more if they have a kitchen.

On to vinegar from fruit. When we do this, we’re doing the two step process mentioned earlier – first, we’re gonna make booze, and then turn that into vinegar. You can make vinegar from juice, or macerated fruit, or chunks if you’re lazy like me. Juice or macerated fruit allows yeast more access to the fruit, and your process will go faster, but I find it more fun to be patient and let nature do her thing.

The more fruit you process, the deeper the flavor, but there is a ratio to maintain. I’ve found that filling a half gallon mason jar roughly 2/3 of the way with mashed or chopped fruit and then topping off with fresh water is spot on – I get lots of flavor and aroma with minimal fuss.

If you want to increase the fruit content, you can batch infuse. Fill your jar as described above and let it sit for a week, then decant the liquid into another jar through a strainer to catch the fruit. Refill your first jar with fresh fruit and repeat for another week. Do this three or four times and you’ll get a notably more intense flavor profile. It’s a great process for fruit with a lower sugar content.

Once you’ve got a jar full of fruit and water, cover it with cheesecloth and set it in a warm, quiet spot out of full sunlight – This is the point where that local yeast goes to work making booze for you.

Again, you can certainly add a little mother to help speed up the overall process at this point. Since we’re making booze first, you don’t need as much – 2 tablespoons is plenty.

As we did with wine vinegar production, let things go in one week increments. You’ll not likely see much happening in week one, but by the second or third, expect to see little bubbles forming on jar edges and the surface of your mix – that’s CO2 getting produced as yeast eats sugar and converts it to alcohol.

As you check progress, use your nose, mouth and eyes – By the two to three week point, you should smell a faint whiff of booze coming off your jar, and taste that too. Keep an eye on things, assuring that what you sense is pleasant. Anything dark, stinky, or nasty tasting is not desirable – scoop it off and keep going – the good guys should take over again when you do.

After somewhere in the 3-6 week range, the local yeast will have done its thing, and the process changes from alcohol production to conversion of booze to acetic acid. Taste testing now begins to focus on that desired acidity – we all know what good vinegar tastes like, and how sharp it is, right? If you didn’t answer yes to those last questions, shame on you.

Once you’ve reached the desired state of vinegariness, you’re ready to clarify and bottle. Line a chinois or funnel with cheesecloth and carefully pour your vinegar through into a clean glass jar or mixing bowl. A couple of passes will make sure any fruit goo, seeds, skin, etc doesn’t make it to your finished product.

You’ll see ample evidence of healthy mother production – lots of that powdery white stuff and some gooey, ropy stuff too – as you filter, rest assured that sufficient amounts of mother will make it to your vinegar jars.

Bottle in sanitized glass, with clean cork stoppers. You now have shelf stable, incredibly delicious house made vinegar – what kind will you make next?

Now for those two fruit versions I promised

Urban’s Vinagre de Piña

If you want this to be muy authentico, you need piloncillo oscuro (dark) sugar – it’s made from pure sugar cane boiled down to a thick syrup and then poured into cone shaped molds, and has far greater depth and nuance of flavor that our brown sugar. It’s readily available at Latin markets and online.


1 ripe Pineapple

1/4 Cup Piloncillo Sugar

2 whole Cloves

Water to fill a half gallon mason jar

Optional: 2 tablespoons vinegar with mother.

Trim top and bottom from the pineapple, the remove all the skin, skim cutting around the outside edges.

Cut pineapple into roughly 2” chunks.

Cut a hunk of piloncillo and microwave for 15 seconds – that should soften it enough to grate or hand crumble.

Add sugar and cloves to a clean half gallon mason jar.

Fill jar half way with fresh water and stir vigorously to dissolve the sugar.

Add pineapple, then top off the water to within roughly 1 1/2” of the top of the jar.

Drape tight cheesecloth over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band.

Let sit in a warm, quiet spot out of direct sunlight.

See above and follow specifics of the process. Without added mother, the process will take a good 6 to 8 weeks to complete, a bit faster if you live in hot country.

When you can find it, what often is called banana vinegar is no such thing – the real deal made down in Mexico is made with plantains. Sometimes called cooking bananas, plantains come from the same family, but are a far cry from bananas – they’re starchier, seedier, and have a notable lower sugar content, and generally want to be fried, baked, or boiled and topped with something sweet to be truly tasty.

In Veracruz, the Macho Plantain is the one most often used to make vinegar – it’s big, hence the dubious moniker, and gets used for all kinds of dishes – there’s even an empanada dough made from them.

Machos are among the sweeter of the plantains, not as potato like as some. They make a delightfully subtle, nuanced vinegar. They’re also the variety most grown up here in the states, so you can actually find them pretty readily at local Latin groceries, (they’re readily available online as well). My version uses warm spices you’d likely find in a Veracruzano molé.

Urban’s Vinagre de Plátano Macho


6-8 Macho Plantains

1 Cup Piloncillo Sugar

1 whole Star Anise

1” stick Canela

1 whole Clove

Fresh water to fill a half gallon mason jar

Optional: 2 tablespoons vinegar with mother.

Peel, end trim and chop plantains into roughly 2” chunks.

Cut a hunk of piloncillo and microwave for 15 seconds – that should make it soft enough to grate easily.

In a clean half gallon mason jar, combine sugar, star anise, cinnamon, and clove.

Fill jar half way to the top with fresh water and stir vigorously to dissolve the sugar.

Add plantains and top water off to within about 1 1/2” of the top of the jar.

Drape tight cheesecloth over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band.

Let sit in a warm, quiet spot out of direct sunlight.

See above for specifics throughout the process. Without added mother, the process will take a good 6 to 8 weeks to complete, a bit faster if you live in hot country.

Tajine – A dish and pot from North Africa

I admit it, I’m obsessed with clay cookers. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. It’s not a stretch in any way to say that cooking in clay has been going on since deep into prehistory. By 400 B. C., earthenware was being mass produced in several places around the world. The advantages were obvious, and in this age of renewed interest in slow food, they are again. Clay cooking adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a dish – a subtle, earthy note and a distinct juicy tenderness. Today, we’ll take a look at the tajine, a dish and pot from North Africa.

You’ve seen a tajine, even if you didn’t know what it was called. It’s that elegant, conical pot you see on food porn shows and sites – and they’re truly magical. As noted above, tajine refers both to the cooking vessel and the dishes that are cooked and served therein. Now, first question answered – No, you don’t have to buy the pot to make the dish, but yes – it will taste that much better if you do.

Real deal tajine - unglazed and hefty

A tajine, (or Tagine, Maraq, or Qidra, depending on where you are), consists of two parts, a shallow, round pan, and a tall conical top that fits snuggly inside the rim of the pan. The pan and top are rather thick on a tajine made for cooking, around 1/2” to 3/4” – This implies that there are tajines not made to cook in, and indeed, there are – Many of the shiny glazed, highly decorated versions you’ll find are in fact not cookware, but meant to present and serve a dish. From a reputable seller, they’ll be clearly marked as a serving tajine, (And woe betide the cook who doesn’t do their due diligence). Serving tajines are thinner, and will fail in a spectacularly catastrophic manner if you attempt to cook in them – Don’t be that cook. If you’re interested in buying, get an unglazed, hefty, genuine cooking tajine, made in Morocco. You’ll find tajines made of numerous other things – aluminum, cast iron, steel, and enameled metal among them. If you want the real deal, it’s gotta be unglazed clay – More on that shortly.

The magic that a tajine imparts to a dish stems from that conical top. It’s hollow and sports a small hole placed very near the apex. On the outside, there’s what looks like an egg cup set atop the cone. Every aspect of this device is intentional and adds to the voodoo the tajine do do. The cover is designed to collect and condense moisture from the cooking food and return it to the pan. The little hole in the top regulates steam pressure within the vessel. As such, when working with a clay cooker, very little water or stock is generally added to the dish, because it’ll generate its own. The little egg cup at the very top of the pot is filled with cold water and serves to improve condensation while cooking. Magic, I tells ya.

The pot is truly ancient, dating all the way back to the 800’s in Arabic literature, which certainly implies it was around well before then. This was during the reign of the Abbasid Empire, which sprawled from southern Spain to Northern Africa and most of the Middle East. These days, the pot and the dish see heaviest use in North Africa, with the Middle East a close second, and France a surprising third – They’re popular enough there that legendary French cookware maker Le Creuset makes an enameled, cast iron version.

Naturally, my magic claims beg the question – Is there reputable science behind that? Some say yes and some say no. The most common claim is that unglazed clay adds flavor to a dish – I’ve got quite a few clay cookers, and I swear it’s true, as do a whole bunch of cooks and chefs around the world. As a clay cooker acquires a history, the more pronounced that ‘certain something’ it imparts becomes. It’s subtle, but it’s there, just as cast iron does. Scientists, including Harold McGee, poo poo this claim, but nonetheless, I swear it’s there – Oh, and yes, curve balls do curve.

Taste claims aside, there are thermodynamic reasons clay cookers do what they do. Clay is a good insulator, the exact polar opposite of the claim most cookware makers like to tout – that is, how well their stuff conducts heat. Naturally, this begs the question, why would we want an insulator to cook in? The answer is relatively simple – Because if you truly want to cook something low and slow, an insulator will do a far better job than a conductor. Conductive materials absorb and pass heat to a dish relatively quickly, while insulators do both on a much slower time line – Low and slow. This is especially important when cooking proteins like meat and poultry – Fast and hot makes meat tough, especially the cheaper, tougher cuts, while low and slow makes them fork tender and delicious – Every bowl of beef stew or plate of pot roast attests to this.

Furthermore, thermodynamic laws dictate that the property of a good insulator holds true regardless of temperature. Doubt that fact? Take our Romertopf cooker as an example then. These folks tell you to crank the heat up 100° F above your normal roasting temperature – 450° F for a whole chicken. The Romertopf will cook that bird perfectly. With nothing more than a little salt and pepper onboard, it’ll be one of the best chicken you’ve ever tasted. Think about it – Clay cooker are ancient and yet they’re still around, all over the world – Thousands of years of culinary experience cannot to be denied. The fact is, all the modern cookware versions of low and slow cooking are okay, but they pale before the real thing.

Traditional tajine is cooked over coals, the African answer to a Dutch oven. Here in the West, you can get it done that way, on a stove top, or in the oven. They key here is to avoid thermal shock, a thing that can and will lead to a cracked tajine. A gas cook top works great, while electric or flat top is a bit trickier – Their tendency to cycle the heat can play havoc with the cooker, so a diffuser is needed to even things out – That’s just a chunk of steel or aluminum that sits between burner and tajine, (they cost about ten bucks). You can cook with a tajine on your gas or charcoal grill, so long as you don’t ramp things up too high. Medium low heat is the rule, regardless of the method. That means that dishes cooked this way aren’t gonna go fast, so one must plan accordingly. And by the way, those metal bottomed tajines are specifically designed for stove top cooking.

As with virtually every clay cooker, there are seasoning steps that must be done to properly prep your cooker for a long, useful working life. Unglazed tajines must be immersed in water for a minimum of 2 hours, (and overnight isn’t a bad idea at all). Once they’re soaked, they’re patted dry and left to air dry for an hour, then lightly rubbed with olive oil. Seasoning is done by placing the tajine in a cold oven, then cranking the heat to 300° F for two hours. Turn the oven off, leave the tajine in there to cool completely. Once cooled, give it another light coating of olive oil, and you’re good to go.

So, what about the dish that shares the pot’s name? They’re predominantly Moroccan, but they’re popular throughout the Maghreb, (that includes Tunisia and Algeria). The roots stem from the collision between hometown Berbers and invading Muslim Arabs, back in the 900s – That’s when middle eastern spices met Berber stews, and a beautiful thing was born. The result is the spice blend known as Ras el Hanout, the Head of the Shop.

Ras el Hanout, as the name implies, is the best a spice shop has to offer. Like certain molés, it’s a very complex mix indeed, and like so many regional favorites, everybody has a different version, and their’s is best, no doubt about it. It’s used for everything from tajines, to a rub for meat or fish, to an adjunct for rice and couscous dishes. It’s hefty, complex, and heady, and it’s what really gives tajines their kick. Purists will claim a proper Ras el Hanout must have exactly so many ingredients, and again, whatever theirs are would be the only proper mix. The list for potential contributors is long – allspice, aniseed, ash berry, cardamom, chiles, chufa, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cubeb, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise, mace, nutmeg, long pepper, and dried rosebuds are just a start.

Those ingredients and blends will change radically in countries other than Morocco. Truth be told, a day to day tajine won’t have the full monty ras el hanout on board – They’ll use a few favorite spices, just as we would with a casserole or stew – The full Ras is for special occasions. Tunisian tajine is very different from this – A stew base is seasoned with the Berber mix Baharat, (a close but distinct cousin to ras el hanout.) that is thickened with bread or flour, and then has egg and cheese added – The end result is more like a frittata than what we’d think of as a North African stew. A quick internet search will yield you a bunch of options for any or all of these.

Here’s a fine chicken tajine to get you started. If you don’t have a tajine, don’t sweat it – a braiser or Dutch oven will do OK in a pinch. Same goes for the spice blend – Use what you’ve got and don’t sweat the rest, it’ll still be very tasty. If you catch the bug, you can branch out and go wild. The one thing worth chasing down here is nigella seed – You can find those at a speciality grocer or online. They have a unique, nutty, shallot-like flavor that’s a signature note to this dish. You’ll note that the tajine shown herein has more veggies than what’s noted in the recipe – That’s intentional – Folks will put in what they’ve got, and what they like when they make one – I did, and you should too, yeah?

Moroccan Chicken Tajine

1 whole Chicken
2 medium Onions
1/2 Cup pitted Olives (red or purple)
1/3 Cup Water
1/4 cup Avocado Oil
3-4 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Preserved Lemon (1/2 Fresh is fine)
6-8 sprigs Cilantro
2 Tablespoons Nigella Seed
1 Tablespoon Butter
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
3/4 teaspoon Grains of Paradise (Pepper is just fine)
1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Saffron threads, crushed

Mis en place for tajine

Cut chicken into pieces, (you can butterfly it and then cut pieces if you wish)

Tie cilantro sprigs into a bouquet.

Cut lemon into quarters.

Peel, trim and chop garlic.

Peel, trim and chop one onion, and cut the other into roughly 1/4”thick rings.

In a heavy sauté pan, toast nigella seeds until fragrant. Grind half and leave half whole.

Spice blend for tajine - Smells as good as it looks

Pour olive oil into the bottom of your cooking pot. Cut the butter into small cubes and distribute evenly. Evenly arrange the onion rounds over the oil.

Layering a tajine

In a large mixing bowl, combine chicken, chopped onion, garlic, all nigella seeds, and all spices. When the ingredients are well mixed, arrange the chicken pieces evenly around the cooking pot, bone side down.

Pour the water into the mixing bowl, and swish things around to get all the left over spice and veggie bits. Pour that into the cooking pot as well.

A big part of the fun with tajine is arranging things

Distribute olives around the pot. Squeeze the lemon quarters over the chicken and toss them in too. Add the cilantro bouquet.

If you’re cooking in a tajine, put the cover on and put the pot on a diffuser over a burner on medium low heat. Cook for 11/2 to 2 hours, checking at the one hour mark to make sure there is sufficient liquid in the mix. If it seems a bit dry, add a quarter cup of water and re-cover. When done, the chicken should be fork tender, and the sauce thick enough to coat a spoon. If you prefer to use the oven, put the loaded tajine into a cold oven on a lower center rack. Bake at 350° F for 45 minutes, then check liquid level and adjust as needed. Cook for another 30 to 45 minutes until chicken is fork tender.

If you’re cooking in a Dutch oven or casserole, cover and heat over medium high until the stew begins to simmer. Reduce heat to just maintain a simmer. Check at thirty minutes for liquid level and adjust as per above. When the chicken is tender, pour off the sauce and thicken in a sauté pan if it needs it.

Chicken tajine

Serve with flatbread, and maybe a cool cucumber salad, or a cold rice or couscous dish.

Perfect accompaniment to a lovely tajine

A Paean to Popovers

When I was growing up in New England, Christmas dinner was often an eye of the round roast and Yorkshire pudding. To this day, I like that pudding a lot. Problem is, Yorkshire doesn’t lend itself to sudden inspiration – Doing it right requires several beating and chilling cycles, so it takes hours, not minutes. Thank the Gods of Batter Puddings that popovers are around – they deliver that crisp crust, delicate eggy body and buttery deliciousness, and you can whip them up in no time.

A glorious homemade popover

Baked batter puddings are mostly savory, with Yorkshire pudding arguably the most famous one. They came into their own in 17th century England, when cooks began to combine wheat flour with fat and milk. Initially more of a pancake-like thing, the advent of whipping air into a starchy matrix combined with the higher heat generated by coal fires gave rise to the Yorkshire version, (pun intended). The relatively cheap pudding became a mainstay first course, designed to fill folks up and thereby reduce the intake of the pricier meat course that followed.

Popovers are a New England invention, made from a crepe-like batter and fat, usually beef drippings back then. Typically roll sized, they’re baked in straight-walled muffin or popover pans – then and now, the best ones are made from cast iron.

Cast iron popover pans produce superior results

The popover name derives from their habit when baked – that delightful tendency to pop up well over the top of the pan. They can be savory or sweet, stuffed with cheese and herbs, or topped with fruit and whipped cream. Popovers are really easy to make, but there are some rules of order to assure great results –


1. Have all ingredients at room temperature before you incorporate them; this promotes better mixing and faster baking.


2. Scald the milk – gently heating the milk helps integrate it with the other batter constituents, promoting a faster rise and lighter final product.


3. Well blended batter – as with a quiche or frittata, thorough mixing generates a wealth of minute air bubbles into the glutinous batter matrix, delivering a lighter, taller popover. An immersion blender does the best job, though a hand blender will do fine too.


4. Preheat the pan and the fat – having everything as hot as possible when the batter goes in is critical to successful popovers. The fat coated hot pan causes the surface of the batter to set almost immediately, sealing off the air bubbles within. This allows those bubbles to coalesce and expand as baking commences, forming one large bubble that causes the namesake pop to occur.


5. Don’t open the oven door while they’re baking, period.

Here are our three favorite version, plain, cheese, and Portland.

Plain Popovers

Plain popovers


2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Whole Milk
4 Large Eggs
4 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
1 teaspoon Salt

Have all ingredients at room temperature, (Butter doesn’t matter, since you’ll melt it shortly).

Preheat the oven to 450° F and set a rack in the center slot.

Add the milk to a heavy bottomed sauce pan over medium-low heat.

Heat milk gently until it scalds – forms small bubbles along the top edge of the pan.

Remove milk from heat and set aside.

Crack eggs into a small mixing bowl; whisk until well blended.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt well.

Add eggs to dry mix and whisk to incorporate.

Slowly add the hot milk to the mix, whisking steadily.

When the ingredients are fully incorporated, use the stick blender to blend them thoroughly, until small air bubbles form and the batter looks frothy, about 2-4 minutes.

Divide butter, and add a pat to 8 cups of a muffin tin.

Slide the muffin tin into the hot oven for about 2-3 minutes.

Carefully remove tin from oven and swirl the browned butter around to coat the sides of the cups.

Fill each roughly half way with batter.

Bake for 15 minutes, then drop temp to 350° F and continue baking until popovers pop and are golden brown.

Cheese Popovers are great, offering whole lot of flavor options. Our preference is extra sharp cheddar, but anything from tangy jack or smoked gouda to brie or blue will rock.

Cheese Popovers

Cheese popovers


2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Whole Milk
4 large Eggs
1/4 Packed Cup Cheese
1 teaspoon Salt
5-6 twists fresh ground Pepper
3 Tablespoons Butter

Prep and bake as per directions above – add the cheese when you add the eggs.

The Portland Popover, or Portland Popover Pudding, is a garlic and herb version, often attributed online to Portland, Oregon. That would be a totally erroneous attribution, by the way. The Portland in question is Portland, Maine, where legend has it that the American popover originated.


While garlic is a mainstay of a Portland popover, what herbs you use are a matter of personal choice. Back in the colonial days, you’d be very likely to find parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, and lavender in the average herb garden, so those are great choices to play with.

When I was a kid, I went to summer camp near Acadia National Park, and had amazing popovers at the Jordan Pond House – they’ve been made there since the 1870’s and still are – they’ve even got their own section of the menu.

Portland Popovers

Portland Popovers


2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Whole Milk
4 large Eggs
2 fat cloves fresh Garlic
4 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon Salt
5-6 twists fresh ground Pepper


Smash, peel, end trim and mince garlic.

Add the milk, garlic and lemon thyme to a heavy bottomed sauce pan over medium-low heat and scald.

The rest of the prep and baking is the same as plain popovers above.

Sambal – Indonesian Rocket Fuel

There’s a reasonable argument, I believe, that the chile, (or chillie, chili, or pepper), rivals the tomato for the most widespread crop to have originated in South America and Mexico. Numbers-wise, worldwide tomato cultivation dwarfs that of chiles at something like 3:1, but try to tell me that chiles aren’t far more integral to the soul of more cuisines around the globe, and I’ll beg to differ. Tomatoes are there, yes, but chiles are the heartbeat. If you have even a scrap of Chile Head predilection, discovering and playing with the almost endless permutations of spicy condiments is a constant delight – A little known bastion of such stuff, (at least here in the US), is called sambal – also know as Indonesian rocket fuel.

Sambal is truly ubiquitous in Indonesian cuisine, (the word is borrowed from the Malayan sambel, meaning condiment.) There are over 40 widely popular varieties, and far more personal riffs on those – There are tens of thousands of islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and damn near every one has their own sambal. Chiles are the heartbeat of sambal, mixed with everything from shallots and scallions to shrimp paste and tamarind. The consistency ranges from thin to ketchup-like sauces, and relishes to pastes. Heat profiles go from delicate to fire breathing, and everything in between. There’s a delightful range of all the basic five flavor notes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Sambals are woven into favorite dishes from fresh veggies to fish, chicken, beef, and various soups and stews.

Chiles have a long history in Indonesia, likely introduced by the Portuguese as early as the 16th century. Indonesians were already familiar with some sense of heat zing, through black pepper and ginger. Chiles, with their admirably higher voltage, were a big hit right off the boat.

Traditionally prepared with a stone mortar and pestle, (that look identical to a molcajete and tejolote, interestingly enough), sambal can be either raw or cooked. That choice is often made depending on whether a small batch is being made for immediate consumption, or a larger one for longer term use. Locals tend to insist on freshness, of course, so what you’ll get in a restaurant is likely to have been made either that day, or even right before your meal is served. As with any other wildly popular condiment, there are a bunch of commercially prepared options out there – If Indonesian home cooks sniff at that stuff and swear their home made is way better, they’re undoubtedly right – but they may well have a jar or two in their pantry as well.

Naturally, Indonesia boasts a raft of local chile varieties, including variants of the habanero (adyuma), birds eye (cabe rawit), cayenne (cabi merah), New Mexican (Lombok), naga jolokia (cabe taliwang), and many more. As their parent varieties suggest, these run the gamut from mild to nuclear. You can use the common substitutes for any of these. Birds eye chiles can be hard to find fresh, but are readily available dried, and reconstitute quickly.

Since there’s no truly logical way to present a few options to y’all, we’ll just go with the ones we like most. As always, you’re strongly encouraged to dig into the varieties and their accompanying dishes and branch out on your own. Indonesians eat sambal with almost anything, so it’s a guarantee there’s a world of great pairings out there for you.

NOTES: 

1. The first recipe, for Sambal Kecap Pedas, requires the signature sweet soy sauce of Indonesia, Kecap Manis (kuh-CHOP MAH-nees). That stuff is, all by itself, a widely popular dipping sauce and adjunct for many things, and it’s also super easy to make at home, so I provided a recipe for that as well.

2. As with everything, you should have some flexibility when the spirit moves you. Don’t worry if you don’t have ‘the right chile’ on hand – Use what you have and like for any or all of these recipes.

 

Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

2 Cups Dark Soy Sauce

1 Cup Palm Sugar (or Brown Sugar)

1/4 Cup Water

1/2” chunk fresh Ginger Root

1/4 Star Anise Pod

1/2” Cinnamon Stick (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)

1 fat clove fresh Garlic 

Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, combine sugar and soy sauce. Whisk constantly to combine and dissolve sugar.

Once soy and sugar are fully combined, add water, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and star anise.

Turn heat up to medium high, whisking steadily and bring the mixture to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer gently until sugar is fully dissolved and water has been completely absorbed, about 10 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and allow to cool.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer into a clean glass jar with an air tight lid.

Store refrigerated for up to 10 days.

Sambal Kecap Pedis - Fiery and sweet

Sambal Kecap Pedas – Spicy Sweet

This is a super simple, quick sambal, and it’s delicious

Note – It does require that Kecap Manis sweet soy sauce.

Good birds eye chiles are truly hot little dudes. The low end of the spectrum I listed has a notable, but not debilitating mouth burn, while the high end will cure your sinus issues – adjust accordingly.

2-3 fresh Scallions (shallots are more traditional, so feel free to use them if you prefer)

24-48 Birds Eye Chiles

4-6 Tablespoons Kecap Manis

If you’re using dried birds eye chiles, set them in a non-reactive dish and cover them with very hot water. Allow them to steep until soft and fully reconstituted, about 15 minutes.

Reconstituted Birds Eye chiles - Small But mighty

Peel and end trim scallions, then slice very thinly, (if you have a mandoline, (the kitchen toy, not the instrument), this is the time to get that in play.)

Remove chiles from soaking water and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel, (and now do NOT pick your nose or rub your eyes…), and mince chiles.

Combine shallot and chiles in a non-reactive bowl and add 4 tablespoons of kecap manis – mix with a spoon, and add more sauce if you like things a bit thinner – what you want is a sort of chunky salsa consistency.

Allow the sambal to blend for at least 15-30 minutes before serving.

Commercial Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek 

This is the one you’re most likely to have seen in a jar at a store near you. It’s kinda like sriracha, but much more complex.

1/2 Pound Red Chiles, (Thai, or red jalapeño, New Mexican, cayenne, or serranos will do just fine)

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 stalk Lemongrass

1” fresh Ginger Root

1 small Lime

1/4 Cup Cider Vinegar 

1 teaspoon Palm Sugar, (or brown)

Pinch Salt

Stem chiles and rough chop.

Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.

Peel, trim and rough chop just the white part of the lemon grass.

Zest lime and set fruit aside.

Add chiles, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass to a blender vessel and pulse to incorporate.

Add about half the vinegar and pulse, then repeat with the rest of the vinegar and pulse until you have a homogenous mix.

Add the puréed mix to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.

When the mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to a simmer.

Add sugar, lime zest, a quarter of a lime worth of juice, and a pinch of salt, whisk to incorporate.

Cook until the sugar is fully dissolved, about 2-3 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to a clean glass jar with an airtight lid.

Will last up to a week refrigerated, (but it probably won’t last that long, it’s delicious!)

Roasted Sambal Lado Mudo

Roasted Sambal Lado Mudo

This is my swing on what is arguably the most famous Padang sambal, and it’s a winner – It’s traditionally made with green tomatoes, but I love it with tomatillos – Call it fusion if you like…

You can see from my images that I used what I had for chiles, and let me assure you, it was spectacular.

10-12 long green Chiles (New Mexican or Hatch are perfect – Pick your preferred heat level.)

3-4 large Shallots (You can use scallions, white, or yellow onion too, if that’s what you’ve got)

4-5 large Tomatillos

1 small Lime

1 fat clove fresh Garlic

8-12 drops Red Boat Fish Sauce

Pinch of Salt

Pinch of Sugar

Stem chiles, peel and trim shallots and garlic, peel and stem tomatillos.

Cut all that stuff in half, as well as the lime.

Arrange chiles, shallots, garlic, tomatillos and lime on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Set oven on Broil, and position a rack in the upper middle zone.

Roast the veggies until the skins are blistered, turning once for even cooking, about 7-10 minutes total.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes.

Toss everything into a blender vessel and squeeze the juice from the half lime in as well.

Pulse until you have a nice, chunky consistency. 

Add 3 drops of fish sauce, pinch of salt and sugar and pulse to incorporate.

Taste and adjust fish sauce, salt, sugar and lime as desired.

Transfer to a clean glass jar with an air tight lid. Will store refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Sambal Lado Mudo - Green heat

Asinan – Sweet And Sour Cucumber Salad

Goes great with a Indonesian inspired meal.

For the Salad

1 large, fresh Cucumber

1 small sweet Onion

1 Chile (jalapeño or Serrano goes well if you like heat)

5-6 stalks Cilantro

For the Dressing

4 Tablespoons Lime Juice

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger

1/2 teaspoon Granulated Garlic

1/2 teaspoon Hot Chile Oil

Rinse, peel and slice cucumber, half the onion, and the chile into thin rounds, (again, if you’ve got a mandoline, get it in play).

Fold the cilantro stocks over a few times, bundle that tightly, and slice through the bundle to get a nice fine cut.

Transfer cuke, onion, chile, and cilantro into a serving bowl and toss to combine.

Mix all dressing ingredients in a cruet or small jar and shake to incorporate.

Dress the salad lightly and allow it to sit and marinate, refrigerated for at least 30 minutes before serving.

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.