Parmigiano-Reggiano Stock

You might call it Parmesan, but it really is Parmigiano-Reggiano, ya know. It is arguably the most popular of Italian cheeses worldwide, and rightfully so. When you tase the real deal, aged between 24 and maybe 48 months, the depth and breadth of flavor notes is stunningly good. Maybe, subconsciously, that’s why so many of us save the rinds, even if we don’t do anything with them – the stuff is so damn tasty, we just can’t bear to throw out the ‘inedible’ part. Fear not, I say, because thankfully that inedible thing is hogwash. Last spring, I wrote about stuff you can do with the rinds, but somehow, I missed making stock – time to fix that.

Real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from the five provinces that are allowed to call the stuff by its proper name – Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua. Sorry, but anything else from somewhere else is just cheese. The outer most layer of a wheel of Parmesan Reggiano is the place where all the interaction with the outside world has occurred, while inside, that miraculous cheese matures. The rind hardens, forming a barrier to keep bad things out while allowing moisture to leave the cheese over time. When we buy it, we obviously want a reasonable ratio of rind to cheese. Don’t go too far on that, though, and definitely save rinds, because parmigiano rind stock is liquid heaven.

Parmigiano stock, made with aromatics, herbs, plenty of rinds, and simmered low and slow is the ticket. What you get will be redolent with the scent, taste, and umami powered mouth feel only Parmigiano-Regiano can provide. It is the stuff for staples like Italian wedding, white bean, or minestrone soups. Use it to cook beans low and slow and the results are truly ethereal. Freeze it in resealable ice cube trays and add it to pan sauces or veggies. Cook rice with it and prepare to swoon – no, I’m not bullshitting – it really is that good.

Best of all, it’s incredibly simple to make. There’s a lot of versions out there – This is my take on it, powered by soffritto, the legendary Italian aromatic base, with fresh herbs. Try it the way I’ve written it, then tweak your next batches to your liking, and make it truly yours.

Note: if you’re not a rind saver, you’ll find that quite a few retailers now sell them by the pound – so long as the initial quality is good, and they’ve been properly kept, you shouldn’t hesitate to buy them that way. If you do save them, refrigerated in an airtight container is fine – they’ll last for months.

Urban’s Parmigiano-Reggiano Stock

1 Gallon (16 Cups) fresh Water

1 Pound Parmigiano Rinds

1 large Sweet Onion

2 fresh Carrot

2-3 stalks Celery

6-8 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

8 sprigs fresh Oregano (2 Tablespoons dry)

6 sprigs fresh Thyme (1 Tablespoon dry)

1 Tablespoon Tasmanian Pepperberries (regular old pepper is fine, but not nearly as complex)

2 Turkish Bay Leaves (not California!)

Peel and quarter the onion, smash and peel garlic, rough chop carrots and celery.

Add the olive oil to a heavy stock pot over medium high heat, and heat through.

Add onion and carrots and fry for 2-3 minutes.

Add the garlic and celery and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onion is lightly browned, about 3-4 minutes.

Add the water to the veggies and allow to heat through until the stock starts to simmer, about 6-8 minutes.

Add the all remaining ingredients and stir to incorporate.

Once the stock comes to a boil, reduce to a bare simmer, uncovered.

Simmer for at least 2 hours, and up to 4, stirring occasionally to make the sure the rinds don’t stick, and to test the strength of the stock.

When the stock smells strongly of parmigiano, is slightly cloudy, and everything other than the absolute outer hardest layer of rind has gone into solution, you’re done.

Pour the stock through a colander and send all the non-liquid stuff to compost.

If you’re finicky, you can further clarify the stock through cheesecloth, but frankly, who bother? This is good, rustic stuff in your kitchen, not something done for presentation at a white linen restaurant – live a little and let it be.

Cool stock to room temperature. Store in clean glass jars with enough headroom to not break the container when freezing, about 2”. Also do some up in ice cube trays for smaller batch fun.

Stock is fine refrigerated for 3-4 days. If you want to hold it longer than that, freeze it – it’s good there for a couple of months.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

In 1972, my family spent a month touring Italy. We stopped, of course, in Perugia, where my older sister was studying abroad, at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. We stayed at a hilltop hotel with a rather large dining room. One night, Ma and Pa went out by themselves, and my older Bro and I had dinner there – That was the first time I experienced Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

The plates were, for a 12 year old, huge. A lady at the table next to ours showed us the right way to do things – grab some pasta with a fork, spin that into the bowl of your spoon, then pop that lovely stuff into your mouth. The stuff was stunningly good, and it became an instant favorite for me, but try as I might, I couldn’t finish. First the waiter looked appalled, and asked if I didn’t like it. I denied this, just said it was too much, but the process was already underway. Next came the head waiter, then the maitre d’, and finally, the Chef. With all these guys gesturing and beaming, I finished that damn plate. Ever since, I’ve been more judicious about my intake, and well that I should be – This is seriously rich stuff.

Carbonara is another of those fascinating dishes that are hard to pigeonhole. It’s a Roman thing, in all likelihood – and the locals have heartily embraced it as such. It’s delightfully simple, stemming from the pasta/cheese/pepper family of dishes, like cacio e pepe – maybe more like pasta alla gricia, since carbonara must have cured pork to be authentico. While the roots go way back, this is not an old dish. Carbonaro means ‘charcoal burner,’ and lead to the sobriquet, ‘coal miners pasta,’ but that is probably poetic license.

Carbonara appeared in Italy post World War II, because quite frankly, there was little or no eggs or bacon in that war torn collection of city states prior to the war. There was plenty of both afterwards thanks to the presence of American GIs and their vast supply stores. I think the Carbonara moniker came about because pepper and diced bacon kinda look like coal, if one is being imaginative. This line of reasoning is substantiated by the notable absence of the dish in Ada Bono’s seminal 1930 work, La Cucina Romana – If carbonara had been part of the scene, I guarantee it would have been in her book – and it did appear in Elizabeth David’s 1954 edition of Italian Food. In any event, Italians loved it, and so did the GI’s.

Like any seminal dish, there are a lot of potential rights and wrongs around making Carbonara, I mean come on – it’s Italian cooking, OK? In Italy, 90% of the time you encounter it the meat will be guanciale, the pasta will be spaghetti, the cheese will be Pecorino Romano, and the only other ingredients will be eggs, black pepper, and salt – anything else will be received akin to putting pineapple on their pizza.

Guanciale

Guanciale is worth checking out, but it can still be a bit hard to find here in the states. It is cured pork from the jowl or cheek, notably porkier and fattier than bacon or pancetta. The magic lies in the fat, which melts beautifully when it’s cooked, adding marvelous depth of flavor and mouth feel to a dish. Americans tend to use bacon for Carbonara, which is fine, really, especially if it’s really good bacon – sure they frown on this in Italy, but even pancetta can get you looked at funny over there. I think you should use what you like, but trying a cured pork product you’ve not had before should be on your dance card.

While the pasta you deploy doesn’t have to be spaghetti, it should be something with a hefty surface to volume ratio – that’ll allow the simple and relatively small amount of sauce involved to fully deploy. Folks have been known to double the sauce and use something like penne, and while that would technically be wrong, I’d snarf it down.

Pecorino RomanoParmigiano Regiano

The cheese should be Pecorino Romano, but if you like parmigiano regiano, use that – Just know that they’re very different things – Pecorino is a salty, sharp, almost smoky sheep’s milk cheese, while Parmesan comes from cows – it’s nuttier and funkier stuff.

If ever there was a dish that wanted the best, freshest eggs you can find, this would be it. The taste and the appearance of the dish depend on great eggs, because they constitute most of the sauce – a watery, pale supermarket egg is not going to make great carbonara. Most cooks use whole eggs, while some employ only yolks, and either is fine, really.

As far as other stuff in carbonara goes, everything I’m about to mention does not go into the dish according to purists, and I feel strongly that you try the traditional dish at least once – After that, do what you like – it’s your kitchen. Some folks deploy a little cream in their sauce. Veggies from peas to broccoli and leaks to mushrooms have made their way into the mix. One thing you must never, ever do, however, is buy and eat anything from the store called ‘carbonara sauce’ – knowing what is likely in that stuff to make it shelf stable, it should be obvious that it’s not something you want in your pasta.

Mise en place for Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 Pound Dry Pasta

4 Large Eggs

8 Ounces Guanciale, (Pancetta or bacon are fine too)

1/2 Packed Cup Pecorino Romano Cheese

1/2 Packed Cup Parmigiano Regiano Cheese

Fresh Black Pepper

Cut your pork into roughly 1/2” cubes.

Grate cheese.

Fill a large pot with 5-6 quarts of water, then add 4 tablespoons of kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat.

Add the spaghetti, allow the water to return to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a rolling boil.

Cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Boil pasta until it’s al dente, about 6-9 minutes.

In the largest skillet you’ve got, sauté the pork over medium heat until the fat is rendered out and the meat is crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat and slide the pan off of the burner.

Crispy pork for carbonara

Reserve 1 cup of past water, then drain the pasta into a colander.

Egg and cheese mix for carbonara

Crack the eggs into a small mixing bowl, then whisk – add the cheese and whisk to fully incorporate.

Slide the skillet back onto a burner on medium and let it heat back through for a minute.

Add the pasta and half the reserved pasta water and use a couple of forks to incorporate that with the meat and fat – a lot of the water will evaporate and that’s OK.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Pull the skillet off the heat again, then add the egg and cheese blend and the rest of the pasta water, and use the forks to quickly incorporate everything – work quickly to get the pasta coated with the egg and cheese mix, and take care that the eggs don’t sit on the bottom of the skillet and scramble – if you get a little of that effect, don’t worry – we’re all human, it happens, and it’ll still be delicious. It’s your kitchen.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Season the pasta liberally with fresh ground black pepper, take a picture, then portion onto plates or bowls and serve pronto. Every time I spin a fork full of this lovely stuff, I’m right back in that dining room in Perugia.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Italian Beef

Michael Whyte and I have been friends on social media for over 10 years. We are an example of what’s great about social media – we’re friends who wouldn’t have met otherwise. We keep track of one another’s lives, and I can say I have genuine affection for the man – Heck, I proudly wear one of his band t shirts. We met via music and guitars, although exactly how I do not recall, (and I doubt Mike does either). He lives in Rockford, Illinois, and I in Ferndale, Washington. We have not yet met face to face, although I hope to correct that. In addition to music and guitars, we share a love of family, community, and growing and cooking great food. We also both lost our Moms during the time we’ve known each other, and that’s where today’s post comes in.

Michael has pretty much been a musician his whole life, and I for most of mine. While I can sing and play, (even at the same time), and have a ridiculous volume of lyrics and guitar licks stuffed in my head, I’m sadly not much of a songwriter. Michael on the other hand very much is. He is currently part of the Blue Healers band in Rockford, so if you’re in the area, check it. We share a strong drive to create, often through music and writing. We’ve both worked blue collar jobs for most of our days, and prefer that – especially if it gets us outdoors. We both recall our childhoods with affection, and a fair share of those memories focus on food and gardening.

My Mom was born Marjorie Jean Langston in 1923, although she never used her first name. She was raised in Billings by parents of English/Scots/Irish descent, who came through Canada and the American south before landing in Montana. She left home at 18 to do her part for the WWII war effort, and headed down to the Fort Douglas army base outside Salt Lake City, where a high school friend was already working. Pretty early on she asked what there was to do for fun and who she should meet – She was told dancing and Tom Atwater, who was a fine dancer. Even though her mother told her not to be dazzled by a guy in uniform, they were married a few months later at the base. Mom did a lot of supporting dad’s education after the war, but also raised four kids, mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, and became an artist of some renown on two coasts in her lifetime. She passed away in 2015, at the ripe old age of 92.

Mom was not a fancy cook by any stretch of the imagination, but she admired a great deal about good food. She put three squares on the table for a family of six for many years. Her culinary bible was The Joy of Cooking, which now occupies a place of honor in my kitchen. She greatly admired and often attempted dishes by Julia Child, as did so many budding cooks in the 1960s, (She also introduced me to Julia at WGBH, it that’s another story). That said, she baked bread and cinnamon rolls regularly, canned produce she grew in her vegetable garden, (she made stunningly lovely gardens in general), and was quite open minded about exploring cuisines that were pretty out there for the times. I know that my interest in world cuisine and being adventurous came from her, without a doubt.

Mike’s Mom was Lenore Lazzaro. Her Pappa hailed from the Piedmont, in the northwestern shin of the Italian boot, and her Mom from Ireland, by way of Canada and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She started working for the USPS in the mid 1960s and did so for most of her working life. Lenore learned to cook when she was just a kid, to help feed her three younger siblings. She certainly inherited both Italian and Irish roots to her cooking. Mike says, ‘she just always loved to cook,’ and that passion has passed to him. He wrote, ‘When I was a kid we lived on a small chicken farm. We always had a large garden. She and her cousin and her Italian aunts made fresh pasta. She did her own canning. I rarely remember having food from cans as a kid.’ Their farm was on the northwest edge of Rockford, and some of it remains – The house and barn are there, as is the chicken coop, although that’s been turned into a garage. Lenore passed away last May at the age of 84.

So when I saw Michael post about making Italian beef recently, the light bulb atop my beady little head lit up brilliantly. We had a nice back and forth about it after I asked for his recipe, wherein he mentioned that this was a dish that had come to him from his Mom. I asked if I might write all this up, and he replied, ‘It would be an honor,’ – and indeed it is.

So, about that ethereal stuff – First off, what we’re talking about is a well cooked and seasoned hunk of beef that is then enjoyed in as many permutations as you have imagination. You can begin that journey as we did – a nice thick slice, with some fresh pasta and veggies on the side, but you could also go straight to Italian beef sandwiches without a trace of guilt. While you’re highly unlikely to find an analog of this dish in Italy, it’s a hallmark of the cuisine of Italian immigrants who landed in the American Midwest, firmly centered in Illinois. For scholars of the sandwich, Chicago is the Holy Land, and arguments as to who’s version is best can get, shall we say, rather animated. While some troglodytes have been known to claim that this sandwich derived from a French Dip, I beg to differ – French dip is, at its best, pedestrian, whereas a great Italian beef sandwich is a thing of sublime deliciousness – and of course, the beef is key.

The cut used is traditionally a top or bottom round, wet roasted in rich, (preferably home made), stock, with a properly hefty degree of garlic and dry spices onboard. Doing things this way will notably reduce the weight and size of your roast, and can even lead to people claiming it is dry, but that should never be true – Italian beef is meant to go with the incredibly rich jus that this cooking method generates – Whatever you do, make sure you combine the two and you will be more than happy, trust me.

As for method, purists will demand that the roasting be done at exactly 350° F, and you can certainly do that, placing your beef in a braiser or Dutch oven. That said, even if this is how many of the famous makers do theirs, we at home can do the deed in a slow cooker and achieve splendid results as well.

Here is what Michael had to say about how he does his version, followed by a point specific recipe that’s our swing at things. Between the two, you’ll get a good idea of what’s involved, and from that you can develop one that’s distinctly yours.

“Pretty much what you’d expect, with one exception: top or bottom round, onions, peppers (red and green), lots of garlic, a mix of dried herbs and spices, 3 to 1 beef broth to chicken broth (the chicken helps keep the metallic taste that the beef sometimes has at bay), a sprig each of fresh thyme and rosemary and a bay leaf (remove all at end), a couple healthy shots of Worcestershire sauce, a dribble of juice from a jar of pepperoncini and…here’s the secret…1/2 to a full cup of black coffee! Season and sear the roast, everything into the slow cooker, and about 5 hours later it’s done. The dry dressing mixes that a lot of Italian beef recipes call for are just too salty for my taste. I prefer to control the salt by mixing my own – My mom never used those mixes, either. I don’t know if my recipe is exactly like hers, but the coffee was definitely her contribution. Crunch the garlic and use a LOT.”

As for the dried Italian blend, I’ll just say that this should be as individual as possible. There’s some good guidelines for what makes a mix ‘Italian’, but that’s not gospel – you should go with what pleases you best. Here’s what we use these days as our All Purpose Italian Dry Blend – Feel free to tweak that as you see fit, and then call it yours.

2 Tablespoons Basil

2 Tablespoons Turkish Oregano

2 Tablespoons Lemon Thyme

2 Tablespoons Chive

2 Tablespoons Savory

1 Tablespoon Marjoram

1 Tablespoon Rosemary

1 Tablespoon Chile Flake

You can pulse this stuff in a food processor or spice grinder, or just patiently work it through a single mesh strainer. There’s nothing wrong with having the blend somewhat rustic, as opposed to a perfectly uniform powder – process until you reach the consistency you like, then store in a clean glass container.

Italian seasoning blend

Urban’s Italian Beef

3-4 Pound Top or Bottom Round Roast

4 Cups Beef or Chicken Stock, (or a blend as Mike does, if you prefer – homemade of course)

1 Red Bell Pepper

1 Green Bell Pepper

1-2 Onions (whatever variety you like)

1 Head fresh Fennel

8-12 Cloves Garlic

4 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning Blend

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

1 Cup Black Coffee

1/4 Cup Pepperoncini Juice

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce

1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Peel, trim and rough chop onions.

Smash, trim, and peel garlic.

Stem and devein peppers, then rough chop.

You may, if you wish, sauté the peppers and onions for a bit to get some deeper flavors into them.

Sautéing peppers and onions prior to slow cooking

Step, peel, trim and rough chop fennel.

In a dry, heavy skillet over medium high heat, sear the beef thoroughly on all sides.

Searing the beef roast

Transfer beef to a slow cooker, then add stock and all other ingredients.

Italian beef ready for a slow cook

Cook on a medium setting 3-4 hours, until you reach an internal temperature of 135° – 140° F.

Pull the beef out of the stock and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing or shredding.

Homemade Italian beef

Do not toss the stock! This is liquid gold, and it’s critical to enjoying the beef for additional meals. It also makes an exceptional base for soup or stew.

Italian beef stock - liquid gold

If you like slices, the stock will make amazing gravy with very little work required.

Whatever you make for subsequent meals, reheat stock in a heavy pan large enough to handle the stock plus whatever beef you want to use. You can slice or shred as you please – Then reduce heat to low and immerse the beef in the stock for at least 30 minutes, up to a coupe of hours – The longer you reintroduce them, the better your results.

Italian beef sandwich

If you’re doing Italian Beef Sandwiches, know that there’s a bunch of variations on this theme, each a favorite of someone and often debated hotly – Just go with what sounds best to you, and to heck with the naysayers. The most common, (and in my opinion, most delicious), additions are a giardiniera mix or pickled sweet peppers. Some folks like cheese, and that’s fine too. If you want more onions, tomato, and shredded lettuce, then do that – it’s your house. I like a little homemade Italian salad dressing on mine from time to time. The bread should be a nice, fresh Italian loaf, sliced thick but not too thick. Here are some of the more common ‘official’ variants.

Hot Dipped means Italian beef with gardiniera, and the bread slathered with hot stock.

Sweet Dry is Italian beef and sweet peppers, no extra stock.

A Soaker means the bread has been generously dunked in hot stock, with sweet peppers or gardiniera.

Cheesy is just that, with provolone or mozzarella.

Cheesy Garlic is beef and cheese on grilled garlic bread, (and it’s freakin’ delicious)

So there you go, with big love to Michael’s Momma for a wonderful dish, and a lifetime of fond memories. When you make it, offer up a little thanks to Lenore.

Giardiniera – The King of Pickled Veggies

This year’s garden has been hit and miss. Some things have done nicely, others not, even with staggered plantings. That struck home when we had a look at the cucumbers and realized we wouldn’t get enough to make a winters worth of pickles and relish – That’s when inspiration struck – Why not go for a big batch of Giardiniera, the King of pickled veggies, instead?

Giardiniera, (Jar-dhi-nare-uh), is a delightful pickled vegetable mix, either done up as bite sized pieces or a relish. Redolent of fresh veggies and good olive oil, wrapped around lip smacking brininess that rivals a great cornichon – This is something we all need to be making at home.

Pickling foods to preserve them hardens back thousands of years and crosses numerous boundaries – almost every society does and has employed it. Everything from veggies, to meat, fish, fruit, nuts, and even eggs can end up in the pickle jar, much to our advantage. Pickling not only helps preserve things through the dark months, it adds a vital zip to what can otherwise be a rather bland time of year.

Giardiniera hails from Italy, and means literally, ‘from the garden, (also called sottacetto, or ‘under vinegar.’) While variants come from all over the boot, the versions we’re most familiar with has southern roots, down where the mild Mediterranean climate fosters a wide variety of veggies, the best olive oil, and great sea salt. That’s where those colorful jars filled with cauliflower, carrot, olives, onions, peppers, and chiles hailed from.

image

You’ll likely find jars of the bite sized version of giardiniera in your local grocery, with the fancy olives and other pickled goodies. While some of the commercial stuff is pretty good, none of it can match what you can make at home, and to top things off, it’s remarkably easy to do, (And frankly, the relish version of giardiniera is much more versatile, and rarely found in stores).

Seasoned with fresh herbs, maybe even touched with a little hot chile flake, giardiniera is fabulous on sandwiches, (including burgers and dogs), pizza, salads, and as a table condiment with more dishes than you can shake a stick at. Now is the time to be doing up a few batches of your own – it’s fairly traditional for giardiniera to be made in the fall, as a catch all for all those late season veggies we don’t want to lose to the first frost.

The American home of giardiniera is Chicago, where that famous Italian beef sandwich hails from. Slow roasted beef, cooked over its own jus, sliced thin and slapped onto a nice, dense roll, ladled with a generous spoon of giardiniera, a little jus, and eaten in the classic sloppy sandwich hunch – a little slice of heaven.

Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera
Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera

Making giardiniera is a real treat. Your first and foremost issue, naturally, is what to put into the mix. The blend I outlined earlier is generally recognized as the classic base mix, but pretty much anything goes, (I should note that peppers and chiles were not in the original Italian versions of the dish, as they didn’t show up in European cultivation until the 1700s.) firm veggies, like carrots, celeriac root, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus do well. Peppers and chiles will do well too, though really soft stuff like tomatoes tend to break down quickly.

Making giardiniera couldn’t be easier. While some recipes call for cooking or fermenting, (both processes are perfectly fine), the simplest version is, for my mind, best – Just brine your veggie mix for a day or two, until you reach the degrees of zip and bite that you like, and that’s it. You’ll find recipes that call for the mix to be stored in brine, oil, vinegar, and a simple vinaigrette – My money is in the latter option – that will provide a nice stable medium, and a great taste as well.

There are typically mild and spicy (AKA Hot) versions, and extensive regional variety, like the Chicago style that includes sport peppers and an accompanying degree of heat. Down south, the version that goes with a muffuletta sandwich is mild and heavier on the olives. Those are great, and worth your time to build, but really, look upon giardiniera as a launching pad for creativity – You really can’t go wrong if it’s made with stuff you love – For instance, I didn’t have celery when I made up the relish version, but I did have fresh celeriac root, and it turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

You can use any oil and vinegar you like for the base vinaigrette. Seasoning can be as easy as good salt, olive oil, and vinegar. When you feel like adding additional spices, be conservative in both number and ratio – The rule of three is a good thing here.

Unless you process your giardiniera in a hot water bath, keep in mind that this is basically a fridge pickle. If made carefully, and packed into sterilized glass jars, it will last a month or two refrigerated. Just keep in mind that they’re not shelf stable unless you go through the canning process. Accordingly, what we offer below are small batches that will make a couple of quart jars of finished product. There are cooked and fermented versions out there, and we’ll leave those for you to explore.

Giardiniera Relish

A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge
A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge

For the base mix

1 Green Bell Pepper
1 Red Pepper
1 small Sweet Onion
2-4 Jalapeño Chiles
1 medium Carrot
1 Stalk Celery
1/2 Cup Cauliflower florets
1/4 Cup Pickling Salt

For the final mix

1 Cup White Vinegar
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
6-8 large Green Olives
1 Clove Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Chile Flake
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rinse all produce thoroughly.

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

Cut all veggies for the base mix into a uniform fine dice, about 1/4″ pieces. It’s not important to be exact, just get everything about the same size and you’ll be fine.

Transfer the mix to a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Cover the mix with fresh, cold water with an inch or so to spare.

Add the pickling salt and mix with a slotted spoon until the salt is thoroughly dissolved.

Cover with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, take a spoon of the mix out, gently rinse it under cold water for a minute or so.

Test the degree of pickle and softness of the veggies. If you like what you’ve got, move on – If not, give it another day.
When you’re ready to prep the final mix –

Remove the base mix from the fridge and transfer to a single mesh strainer. Run cold water over and through the mix, using your hand to make sure that the salt solution is rinsed off.

fine dice the olives, peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Add all ingredients to a glass or stainless mixing bowl and stir with a slotted spoon to thoroughly incorporate.

Sanitize two quart mason jars either by boiling the jars, rings, and lids for 3-5 minutes in clean, fresh water, or running them through a cycle in your dishwasher.

Transfer the mix to the jars, and seal. Refrigerate for two days prior to use.

Giardiniera, bite size
Giardiniera, bite size

For the bite sized version, cut everything into roughly 1″ pieces, )or larger, depending on jar size and predilection), and process as per above. A bay leaf or two is a nice addition.

Never Toss Those Parmesan Rinds!

Let’s talk about Parmigiano-Reggiano, or more specifically, the rinds therefrom. Why? Because Monica saves them, and frankly, while you might think she’s being extra OCD, you’d be wrong. Right after she pointed out that I get most of my good ideas from her, (OK, that might be true…), she noted, ‘we pay twenty something bucks a pound for that stuff – I’m not throwing that away!’ She’s right, folks – Never toss those Parmesan rinds.

Parmigiano-Reggiano, the King of Cheese

We should probably start with a bit of definition, since there are variables out there. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a cows milk Italian hard cheese. If it’s to be called P-R, then it has to have aged for at least 2 years before you got it, (and sometimes longer – Stravecchio is 3 years old, and stravecchiones is a 4 year old). Real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano comes only from Parma, Bologna, Mantua, or Modena, and the words ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano’ are clearly stenciled onto the outer rind of each wheel of cheese. That P-R name, as well as the anglicized version, ‘Parmesan,’ are protected turf across Europe, per Italian DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) laws. 

Parmigiano-Reggiano aging

Here in the U.S., Parmesan does not enjoy that protected status, so it can come from just about anywhere. That’s not to say that all non Parmigiano-Reggiano is crap – There are some American makers creating very good cheese indeed. One caveat though – Don’t ever buy anything labeled Parmesan that’s already been grated – That’s like buying your coffee pre-ground, and it’s a major no no – it’s virtually guaranteed that the expected depth and intensity of flavor will not be there.

Real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds - Never toss ‘em!

Since we’re talking cooking with rinds here, no genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that I’m aware of has a waxed rind, but some other Parmesan varieties do, so caveat coquus, (cooks beware, I think…) It’s easy to tell if a rind is waxed or not, just scrape it with a paring knife if you can’t tell by sight alone.

As for those genuine rinds, I assure you, they’re 100% edible. If you’ve got a really fine grater plate, or a micro plane, you have all you need to enjoy them. Fact is, all the stuff you dig about Parmigiano-Reggiano is intensified in that crustal zone – The umami, the intensely savory flavor notes, the whole shebang – so wasting that really is criminal, let alone costly.

The simplest, and some of the most deliciously effective uses for P-R rinds is to toss a couple or three into any low and slow dish you think might benefit. Everything from all day bolognese and minestrone, to stew or house made stock will benefit greatly. The rinds will soften and release that legendary flavor profile slowly but surely. You can toss the rinds after you’ve used them in this manner, or give them a nosh, as you please, (they’re still edible of course, but they do get pretty played out after hours of work like that). Oh, and your kitchen will smell fabulous when you do this, too.

A rind or two in a pot of rice, wild rice, or beans will work its magic there as well. Again, it’ll bring a notable boost in umami, a distinct mouth feel, as well as that amazing flavor palette, and it’s lovely.

Parmigiano-Reggiano rind oil - Heady stuff!

How about throwing a few rinds cut skinny into a jar and topping them with olive or avocado oil? You’ll get a nice, subtle taste that’s great when mixed with balsamic vinegar for a bread dip, or as a constituent of a fresh vinaigrette.

Parm-Reg rind puffs - Seriously tasty

If you don’t mind microwaves, there’s a great trick from the folks at P-R – Parmigiano-Reggiano crispy cheese rind puffs. They’re a gas to make and they are seriously heavenly little snacks. Chomp on them straight, or cut them into cubes to garnish soup, stew, or a salad.

prepping Parm-Reg rind puffs

Cut a rind or three into strips about 3/4” wide, 1/8” thick and around 3” long.

Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the base or carousel of your microwave.

prepping Parm-Reg rind puffs

Place three pieces of rind on the parchment, and set your micro for 45 seconds on high power, (this if for a oven around 1,100 watts, so your time may vary depending on what kinda power you got).

The rinds will go through a very slick cooking process, puffing up quickly and substantially. Be careful with this stuff – Molten cheese is half velcro, half lava and it will do your skin serious harm!

Parm-Reg rind puffs - Seriously tasty

Carefully pull the parchment with rinds onboard out of the oven, then slide the rinds onto a cooling rack. 

Let them sit for a few minutes to cool out of the molten phase and firm up some.

You’re now in business – You can cut them into croutons, leave them as strips, and go wild – Be forewarned, they’re seriously addictive.

Don’t like microwaves? You can achieve pretty much the same end, albeit without the cool puffing up, by toasting rinds over a gas flame or in your broiler – They’re not quite as sexy as the puffs, but they’re every bit as delicious.

Toasted Parmesan rinds make great snacks, or croutons

If you have a gas stove, cut a hunk of rind to about 1/2” thick, and maybe 3/4” wide and a couple inches long. Spear it with a fork on the cheesy side, and gently toast it over a flame, (over, not in), until it’s nice and golden brown. 

Let them cool, then you can chow down, or cut them into croutons, etc.

If you use a broiler, place rinds cheesy side down on metal foil and cook until golden brown.

So there you go, courtesy of M, you now have a bunch of cool and delicious options for those rinds, and you’ve given your kids something new to shake their heads at when they’re rooting around in the fridge.

I better write about fish sauce

When I was researching for last week’s salsa post, I came across references to one of the earliest known forms of salsa, namely Garum, the pungent roman fish sauce. Then a friend posted a note about discovering that some kimchi she ate had shrimp in it, which she’s allergic to, (traditionally, it usually does include shrimp). That prompted a question about using fish sauce instead of shrimp in a kimchi recipe, (perfectly fine), and the fact that not all fish sauces are created equally. Then, a bit later, M and I were discussing that, when she noted that “proper use of fish sauce dictates that you shouldn’t taste it, (pretty much true, that), and, well – After all that I figured I’d better write about fish sauce.

While it’s enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, fish sauce is still not all that common in most kitchens, especially here in the U.S. Why that is becomes immediately evident when you open a bottle and take a deep whiff – Fish sauce is definitely funky – Yet the undeniable fact is this – If you’re looking for that certain je ne sais quoi to add salty and umami to a dish, fish sauce is the thing to reach for. And if that’s so, why did it die for so long? The answers are twofold – One, because of the fall of the Roman Empire, and two, fact is, it didn’t – It’s been alive and thriving in Asian cuisine, especially Vietnamese, for thousands of years.

Get yours here - Floor mosaic from a Garum shop
Get yours here – Floor mosaic from a Garum shop

It’s a reasonable assumption that humans have been saucing things since well into prehistory. Once we hit some form of civilization, that tendency multiplied in spades. Arguably no society has been more attuned to that trend than the Romans were. Roman chefs and diners seemed to disdain any food in its natural form – Everything had to be tweaked, poked and prodded into something else, and all of it was heavily sauced.

While the Roman Empire afforded its wealthy the chance to enjoy food, herbs, and spices from around the known world, the one thing that fueled everything was salt. It’s arguable that salt was in fact a tap root of their economy, as well as the key to their culinary hearts. In almost every place the Romans conquered, they looked for salt – in mines, evaporation projects, and boilers. Often enough, what they conquered was taken because of salt, because while the Romans traded in damn near everything, salt was simply a thing they couldn’t do without. First and foremost, it was a critical part of feeding and supplying the Roman Legions. Men and animals needed it to survive, let alone fight. It was also a huge part of what kept the lowly masses at bay – As long as they had salt and olives, and maybe a little bread, they were more or less quiescent, and that was critical for the ruling class to be able to remain thus.

Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made
Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made

Back to those sauces – What ruled back then, hands down, was fish sauce. It was in almost everything they ate, from Senator to plebeian. Now, that’s not to say that all fish sauce was created equally – Just as today some drink Veuve Clicquot and others Cooks, there was a wide variety of quality and price when it came to fish sauces. At the top of the heap was Garum, a relatively clear sauce made from the guts and gills of mackerel. This stuff was used at table, and could be fabulously expensive – The creme de la creme was called Garum Sociorum – It was made in Spain, and cost as much as an average Roman Legionnaire got paid in a year, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who got it and who didn’t. Next down the chain was Liquamen, basically, a sauce made in a manner quite close to the way it’s still done throughout Asia – The whole fish was salted and fermented, and a sauce was pressed from that after sufficient processing time. That was used by the cooks, and replaced salt in the vast majority of Roman dishes. Further down the chain came Muria, which as far as we could tell, would be the mixed dregs of the various higher cost fish sauces, pressed – and finally came Alec, which was literally a paste made from the sludge gleaned from cleaning a garum or liquamen making facility – Obviously, the plebeians got those last two products at their tables.

Fish sauces were so key to Roman life that production facilities were made anywhere and everywhere they could be. On the Italian peninsula, in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe and Great Britain, fish were set out in the sun, (basically, to almost get on toward rotting somewhat), and then fermented into the various sauces. It must have been a distinctly pungent experience, to say the least. There was even a certified Kosher version made in occupied Israel.

As fate would have it, in the late 5th Century, the German conqueror Odoacer became the first barbarian ruler of Rome, and the empire was a thing of the past. Along with the fall of the rulers came the fall of all that fish sauce processing – Turns out the Germans didn’t care for the stuff – So a huge network of cottage industries surrounding the production of fish sauce vanished in a relative heartbeat – Except that it didn’t.

It’s not a stone cold fact that the Romans made it to Vietnam, but they probably did. Ptolemy mentioned the garrison of Cattigara, which is likely Óc Eo, in modern day Vietnam. Roman artifacts have been found there, as well as throughout Southeast Asia – No surprise, given the depth and breadth of Roman conquest and trading practices. And it’s there, in Vietnam, and eventually throughout Asia, that fish sauce was firmly established and has remained in steady production. Whether it’s Núoc Mám in Vietnam, (among other variants, they make it out of everything else too – crab, squid, shrimp, you name it), Nam Pla in Thailand, (there’s over 200 different makers there), or Bagoong in the Philippines, it’s a sauce made by fermenting little fish, (usually something from the Herring or Sardine family), and letting them sit for months – The result is as popular as it was to the Romans, and they’ve been making it continuously for thousands of years.

Colatura di Alici di Cetara - Roman Liquamen royalty
Colatura di Alici di Cetara – Roman Liquamen royalty

And now to throw another wrench into the works – It turns out that the process and the sauce never completely left Italy after all – and the differences between what’s found there now and what’s found throughout Southeast Asia are profound and illuminating. In my pantry is a little round bottle labeled Colatura di Alici di Cetara. The contents are gorgeous, a rich amber liquid, obviously quite viscous. Open the stopper and wham! It is seriously fishy, funky and potent as the day is long. It’s not an acquired taste – You either dig this stuff or you don’t. Cetara is a little fishing village tucked into the coast of Campania, between Amalfi and Salerno. There, back in the Middle Ages, a bunch of local monks somehow rediscovered the recipe and process for liquamen and started producing it again, and the town has been doing so more or less every since. It’s made from anchovies caught between March and July, then barrel brined and aged until the late fall, when the precious stuff is pressed and bottled. This is as close to the real deal as you’ll ever get today – This is the stuff Roman cooks used to add salt and umami, (whether they knew it or not), to so many ancient dishes – And that’s the best way to use Colatura as well.

Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám
Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám

Back in Vietnam, what they produce is a far cry from Colatura. There, I’ll boldly call the pinnacle of the art the sauce produced by Red Boat Fish Sauce. Find yourself a bottle of Red Boat 40° N, and you’ll be good to go. This is made from black anchovies from the Phu Quoc archipelago, and salt – That’s it. They’ve been making it the same way for hundreds of years, and it shows. Open that bottle and you get a much more nuanced presentation than Colatura – A gentle caress of your cheek, as opposed to an open handed slap. The fish and funk are still there, but much subtler, and there are other overtones as well, hints of Asia and the smell of Vietnamese cooking. To me, Red Boat is the Garum of our time – I’ll happily sprinkle a little out of the bottle onto whatever I’m having, and it’s awesomely good.

Get yourself a bottle of each of the above, and you’re good to go for all your fish sauce needs. But, before we talk about what to do with them, let me say this about the general state of the fish sauce nation – Having made a resurgence in the culinary world, there are a boatload of products out there. Just like badly prepared calimari, folks who say they hate fish sauce have, nine times out of ten, had crappy fish sauce – God knows there’s enough of that for sale. Let me save you much strife – Most of what you find in the average grocery store is crap. You have no idea what fish they’re talking about, and they sure ain’t tellin’ – At worst, this stuff is truly nasty, and at best, it’s insipid – Avoid it all like the plague and go with my recommendations.

As for what to do? Well, that’s easy – Replace salt with a drop or two of Colatura in damn near anything, and you’ll get not only the Salt note you’re looking for, but a hint of something deeper. Same goes for Red Boat. Used properly, aka very sparingly, you’ll get wonderful, subtle notes without any fishiness whatsoever. An on that note, I refer back to M, who’s comments came following a visit to Vietnamese joint in Seattle that overdid the fish sauce on whatever it was she ordered – The rule is hard, fast, and simple – If it tastes like fish sauce, you used too much. Chances are real good, you won’t make that mistake twice.