My friend Dean Kumbalek does some seriously fine cooking, growing, and preserving of fantastic things to eat. When Dean posted up sauerkraut braised pork chops and dumplings, I knew I was gonna have to take a swing at it and share the results, just as he did.
Dean prefaced his post with the following, which speaks perfectly to what great cooking really is all about – ‘As Igor Stravinsky once said, it is best to work within limitations’ – Rarely do we have everything we want when figuring out what to cook, but we almost always have what we need. What Dean worked up was a truly delicious dish that may sound complicated, but is really quick and easy to prep and cook.
Braising is a two step cooking process, with an initial high heat sear followed by a low heat finish. The quick sear locks flavor into a protein, while a slow, steamy finish develops deep flavors and makes for seriously tender vittles.
We both did this with pork chops, but you could do the same with chicken, or beef, or extra firm tofu. As for what to do to the protein prior to cooking, Dean oiled and seasoned with sage, nigella seed and paprika, then rested his chops, while I went for a dry coating just prior to searing.
For searing, Dean mentioned cast iron or grilling, and both will do a great job and impart some great flavor notes to the finished dish. We both went with cast iron – then I decided I needed a bigger pan, and ended up deploying a heavy braiser for part two of the cooking process.
The low and slow was done with sauerkraut and stock for the liquid and flavor components, and savory dumplings added to the mix. Dean did mushroom/garlic/chile for his, but my crew nixed the shrooms, so I had to pick another umami bomb – I went with fish sauce. What we got was fork tender pork, delicious slaw, and fluffy, spicy dumplings. It was stunningly delicious, so Big Thanks to Dean, and I can’t wait to do this again with chicken and tofu!
For the Chop/Chicken/Tofu Sear
1/2 Cup Wondra Flour
2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (cider is fine)
1/2 teaspoon Granulated Onion
1/2 teaspoon Ground Pepper
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
2-3 sprigs fresh Rosemary
Pat your proteins dry with a clean towel.
Combine all dry ingredients and blend well.
Lightly dredge each side in the flour mix.
Heat a Dutch oven or braiser over medium high heat.
Add a tablespoon of butter and allow to melt, then add the vinegar and whisk with a fork to incorporate.
Set proteins in hot pan and sear for 2-3 minutes until a golden brown crust forms.
Flip the proteins and repeat on the other side(s)
Remove proteins from pan and set on a platter.
Turn heat off but leave the pan as is.
For the Dumplings
2 Cups All Purpose Flour 1/2 Cup Whole Milk 2 large Eggs 2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil 1-2 Tablespoon Green Hatch Chile Powder 2 Cloves fresh Garlic 2 teaspoons Baking Powder 1 teaspoon Sea Salt 1/2 teaspoon Red Boat Fish Sauce
Pull and milk and eggs from fridge and allow to come to room temperature.
Peel, end trim, and mince garlic.
Combine all dry ingredients and blend well.
Combine wet and dry and mix with a spoon – you want a fairly loose batter to begin with.
Let batter rest for 15-30 minutes or so, during which it will tighten up and become more elastic.
You want batter just loose enough to drop from a spoon – not sloppy, as it will absorb liquid from the braise – add a little flour or milk to adjust if needed.
For the Protein Low and Slow
2 packed Cups Sauerkraut
1-2 Cups Chicken Stock
Heat the dutch oven or braiser back up over medium heat.
Add about a half cup of stock to the reheated pan and scrape all the naughty bits off the bottom.
Add the sauerkraut and enough stock to bring the liquid level just below the top of the kraut level.
Place proteins evenly across the top of the kraut and stock mix.
When the mix starts to simmer, give dumpling batter a good stir, then place nice big dollops on top of each protein, and more in the gaps if you’ve got enough batter – you want dumplings about the size of a small lemon.
Cover the pan and reduce heat to low. Allow dish to simmer and steam for 30 minutes.
Remove lid and test dumplings with a toothpick – if it come out of the middle clean, you’re there.
Serve with a crisp salad, devour, and dream about what version you’ll make next.
Living as close to the border as we do, (you can pretty much throw rocks at it from here), Canada Day is a bit of a big deal. Held each July 1st, what once was known as Dominion Day harkens back to 1867. In that year, the British North America Act came into play, uniting the independent colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into one big, happy Canada. Fifteen years later, the Canada Act made It Canada Day, and the rest is glorious history. Our northern pals pretty much have a holiday three day weekend every month, (which is incredibly sensible, by the way), but this is a biggy – Coming when it does, it means food, and in particular, stuff appropriate for a picnic, barbecue, what have you. We gathered our one available kid, (the eldest, sans grandkids but with dawg), and decided to do up an appropriate meal – And as fate would have it, this wouldn’t suck on the 4th of July, either.
We settled on brisket, because we had a lovely, local grass fed hunk of beef just begging to be honored. Naturally, we just had to do some bbq beans and potato salad to go with it. Might seem heavy, but frankly, it wasn’t at all – It was ethereal – Perfect, in fact.
With the day kind of cloudy and cold, I decided I’d rather do the brisket in the oven, rather than on the grill and smoker. This raises the issue of authenticity – A beautiful hunk of beef like that deserves all glory, laud, and honor, so the prep and cooking absolutely cannot be half assed. Secondly, I decided on beans too late in the day to do traditional slow cooked, so those would have to go in the Instant Pot, and again, be as good as the real deal. M rounded things out with a stunningly good potato salad. While this may sound pretty pedestrian, I assure you, it’s not – Everything came out surprisingly good – Good enough that we had to write it down and share it. While we do the same kind of things a lot, we’re constantly tweaking methods and recipes. When the stars align and a meal is this good, it’s time to stop, think, and write down exactly what you used and what you did, because yeah – It’s so worth recreating again.
Let me say that again – Whenever you make something great, write it down, right then and there. Stop and write it down. I do this daily – Everything from a few scratches on a post it note, (sometimes fast enough that I later can’t read them), to more than a few thousand words. My food notes are vast, and many haven’t yet been revisited since they were recorded – Some have been researched, added to, recipes fleshed out, etc, (which sometimes leads to me saying, ‘Yeah I gotta recipe for that,’ after which I discover that answer to be sorta kinda true at best.) In any case, here is a shining truism – The worst thing we can do when cooking is to think, I’ll remember that, because chances are real good that you won’t. Sure, if it’s a thing you do the same way every time, or a basic, you don’t need to record that, (unless you want to share it, of course.) When I’m after a new idea, more oft than not, I’ll plow into my raw notes, see something that triggers a memory, (or at least piques my interest), and away we go. If it struck you as great food, write it down, don’t lose it – As for remembering what you wrote it down on, and where that is – you’re on your own.
So the first challenge was that brisket. Having lived a dozen years in Texas, I know better than to screw with something so culinarily sacred – You are welcome to try alternatives to the Gold Standard, (even if it might earn you some sideways glances or a mumbled comment), but whatever you produce had damned well be real good, y’all hear? Now, far as I’m concerned, there are three non-negotiables for a finished brisket
It must have a nice, crisp crust formed by a dry rub.
It must have notable smoke to the flavor profile.
It must end up fork tender and juicy as all get out.
This version was good enough that, when M noted that Joe didn’t have a knife, his response was, ‘You don’t need one.’
Obviously the quality of the beef is paramount. We had that covered, but I guess I’m getting wimpy in my old age, because I just really didn’t wanna cook out there on a gray, drizzly day, so I sussed out a viable alternative method. When I do brisket on a grill, it’s charcoal, for sure – Two zone set up. Once it’s mostly done, it goes to the smoker for the last hour or so. My solution was to incorporate smoke into the rub, in the form of smoke powder from Butcher and Packer. Through what they call a “highly refined process,” smoke is turned into powder form and mixed with dextrose so that it won’t clump too much. What you get is true to the wood smoke flavor that will fool damn near anyone into thinking you smoked whatever it is you apply it to – In the immortal words of Jackie Chan, ‘No bullshit.’ They make hickory and mesquite, and they’re sublime stuff, indeed. Next, we plugged in an uncovered dry/covered wet cooking process that approximates grilling to a very acceptable degree.
My big twist here is a North African Berbere spice mix to the rub, which was totally serendipitous – It added a delightful, exotic warmth and heat that really popped. I intended to do my typical brisket rub that calls for chili powder, only to find that I didn’t have any mixed up. As I was searching, I saw the berbere and thought, why the hell not? Here’s the deal with that stuff, (but you could absolutely just sub chile powder if you’re not feeling adventurous.)
Urban’s Indoor Brisket
3-4 Pound Beef Brisket
1 1/2 Cups Beef Stock
2 Tablespoons Berbere Spice Blend
2 Tablespoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Mesquite Smoke Powder
1 Tablespoon Granulated Garlic
1 Tablespoon Granulated Onion
1 Tablespoon ground Tellicherry Pepper
1 Tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar
2 teaspoons Dry Mustard
1/2 teaspoon crushed Sage
Preheat oven to 350° F
Unwrap and trim brisket, leaving a nice fat cap.
Combine all dry ingredients and hand blend thoroughly.
Rub a generous layer of the mix into all surfaces of the brisket – Do it by hand, take your time and really work the rub into the meat.
Place the brisket fat side up on a broiling pan.
Roast for 1 hour, uncovered.
Reduce the heat to 300° F, carefully add the beef stock to the bottom of the broiler pan, then tightly wrap and seal the entire pan with metal foil – Wrap it fairly tight to the meat – Don’t leave a whole bunch of air space around the brisket.
Roast for about another 3 hours, until the brisket is fork tender.
Remove from oven, keep the brisket covered and allow a 15 minute rest.
Carve roughly 1/4” slices across the grain and serve.
You can use pan juices as is, or transfer them to a sauté pan, add a little butter and a little more stock over medium heat, and use that as well.
Next came Beans, which I defaulted to the Instant Pot – I can assure you that they were amazing, and suffered not at all from that cooking method, (and I have witnesses). As you’ll see, it’s a three step cooking process with the IP, but it’s all done onboard, it’s super efficient, and the results are stunningly good.
Here again, quality matters a lot. You’ll recall that not long ago, I wrote a bit of a paean to Rancho Gordo beans – On the social media site for RG Club members, a newer convert recently commented as follows, ‘I love my beans so much, but… RG has ruined other beans for me. I can no longer grab a can of garbanzos or a bag of black beans, because they don’t even compare to the quality of RG beans.’ This is so true. I used a variety called Rio Zape, which RG owner Steve Sando describes as, ‘the classic heirloom bean that inspired the birth of Rancho Gordo. Suggestions of chocolate and coffee make this pinto-family rarity one of our favorite and most requested beans.’ It’s no joke – Those beans, coming out of the initial cook with nothing involved but a little salt, are amazing – Taste them, give them to others to taste, and everyone’s eyebrows go up and they start making little spontaneous yum yum noises – Get the picture? If you love beans, you must try Rancho Gordo – They’re that good.
Urban’s BBQ IP Beans
1 Pound Rancho Gordo Rio Zape Beans
1 small Sweet Onion
1-2 Serrano Chiles
6 slices Bacon
3/4 Cup Blackstrap Molasses
1/2 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Ketchup
1/4 Cup Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard
1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar
3-4 Shakes of Worcestershire Sauce
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil for sautéing.
Add dry beans and 6 cups of water to the IP.
Set to Beans and 60 minutes and start the cook.
Allow the pressure to reduce by natural release.
Transfer beans to a colander and drain, (save the liquor for soups and stews – It freezes great)
Dice onion and chiles, cut bacon into roughly 1/4” strips across each piece, (the short way, so you end up with strips about 1/4” by 3/4” or thereabouts.
In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine molasses, ketchup, mustard, agave nectar, vinegar, and Worcestershire – Whisk thoroughly to incorporate.
Set the IP on sauté, add the tablespoon of avocado oil and allow it to heat through.
Add onion, chiles, and bacon – Sauté until onion is soft and bacon lightly browned – about 3 to 4 minutes.
Turn IP off, leaving veggies and bacon therein. Deglaze the bottom of the IP pan with 1/2 cup of chicken stock, scraping up and loosening all the naughty bits.
Add beans and sauce to veggies, bacon, and stock, and gently stir to incorporate thoroughly.
Set for normal pressure run, 30 minutes.
And finally, M’s potato salad incorporates two different pickle flavors that really shine together – Dills in the salad, and bread and butter brine in the dressing. It was stellar.
M’s Two Pickle Potato Salad
4 large Potatoes
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, diced
1 stalk Celery, fine diced
1 Cup Olive Oil Mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard
1 Tablespoon minced fresh Dill
2 teaspoons minced fresh Parsley
2-3 dill pickles, fine diced
1/3 Cup Bread & Butter Pickle Brine
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste.
Prepare an ice bath in a large mixing bowl.
Put eggs in a pan large enough to cover with 2” or so of water.
Bring to a boil, cover, then turn the heat off, and let them sit in the covered pan for 20 minutes.
Pour out the hot water and replace with cold a couple of times, then let the eggs sit in that until you’re ready to deal with them.
Boil potatoes until just fork tender, then plunge into the ice bath to shock, (stops the cooking process).
Prepare veggies as per above.
In a large non-reactive mixing bowl, add potatoes and veggies, including pickles, and eggs. Stir gently with a kitchen spoon to thoroughly combine.
Add mayo, mustard, dill, parsley, pickle brine, and lightly salt and pepper. Stir to combine and thoroughly coat the salad. Taste and adjust brine, salt, and pepper to your liking. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.
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
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
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.
I wanted to do something different with post-Thanksgiving turkey. We’d had the glorious main meal, and fantastic sandwiches the next day. I was making stock for soup, thinking that’d be round three, when a Greek theme intruded on my traditional progression.
It began with feta cheese and great Greek olive oil, both of which I have on hand. We’d also just received some lovely Brussels sprouts from our CSA that didn’t make it into the Big Dinner. I’d cooked some Rancho Gordo Alubia Blanca beans for soup. Of course we have onions, garlic, lemons, and Greek oregano, along with a raft of other fresh herbs out in the garden. My next thought was along the line of, would Greek people in Greece really eat this? Turns out the answer is, probably so.
The Greeks call turkey ‘gallopoula,’ and that or pork is quite popular on a holiday table – quite a few people raise their own birds, and you can’t get better than that. Beans have been a traditional staple in Greece for a long time and are widely cultivated there. And yes, Brussels sprouts are enjoyed in Greece as well – Good to go, all around.
I decided on a baked dish, to transform the feta into a creamy, tangy delight, with everything bound by kalamata olive oil and lemon juice – And that just demands some freshly baked pita, right? Right!
As for herbs, there really is no ‘go to’ blend. If I had to pick must have herbs, I’d go with Greek oregano, dill, flat leaf parsley, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, basil, and fennel. Christy Hohman, my Guru of Greek, makes a blend I love, with Greek oregano, garlic salt, dried grated lemon peel, marjoram, sumac, thyme, and black pepper. She added that, ‘the essentials for the Greek flavor in a mix would be good Greek oregano, lemon, and marjoram or thyme.’ And that is what I will use here.
3 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 1/4 Cups Water
1/4 Oz. active Dry Yeast, (1 package, if you have those)
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
Heat water to @ 115° F
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast and stir gently to dissolve.
Add 3 cups of flour and the salt, then use a spoon or spatula to form a loose dough.
Spread the last 1/2 cup of flour on a working surface and turn the dough out onto that.
Knead the dough for 4-5 minutes, working the last half cup into the mix as needed when things get too sticky.
When the dough is nice and smooth and springy, cut it into 6 more or less equal portions, and roll those into balls.
Roll the balls out to about 6” circles.
Lightly grease a baking pan, and place the rolled out rounds onto that.
Allow to rise for about 50 minutes, until roughly doubled in height.
Preheat oven to 475° F and place a rack in the middle position.
Flip raised pitas over gently, and bake for 6-9 minutes, until they’re light golden brown
Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool.
Urban’s Greek Thanksgiving Bake
1/2 Pound Turkey Breast
1/4 Pound Feta
2 Cups Brussels Sprouts
1 Cup Turkey Stock
2 Cups cooked White Beans
2 Cups Cherry Tomatoes
1 medium Yellow Onion
5-7 cloves fresh Garlic
2 fresh Lemons
1 bulb fresh Fennel
4-6 Ounces Extra Virgin Greek Olive Oil
1/2 Cup Kalamata Olives
1 Tablespoon Greek Oregano
1 Tablespoon Lemon Thyme
Preheat oven to 425° F with a rack in the middle slot.
Chop turkey breast.
Trim and halve Brussels sprouts.
Peel, trim, and chop onion.
Peel, trim, and fine dice garlic.
Slice olives into rounds.
Cut 1 lemon in half and zest. Cut the other into roughly 1/8ths.
Trim fennel and cut into roughly 1/4” thick rounds.
In a large casserole, baking pan, or whatever you’ve got, begin assembly.
Spread a layer of beans, then add Brussels sprouts.
Add onion, tomatoes, garlic, olives, fennel, and turkey.
Crumble feta evenly over all that.
Pour stock into the mix.
Squeeze lemon chunks and place evenly, then squeeze second lemon’s juice and spread zest.
Add olive oil evenly over all.
Sprinkle oregano and thyme evenly over all.
Add a three finger pinch of salt over all, then liberal twists of ground pepper.
Bake at 425° F for 30-40 minutes, until the tomatoes burst and the sprouts are fork tender.
Serve with fresh pita bread, which you darn well better make yourself – See above.
We belong to a great local CSA outfit called Dandelion Organic. Even though we grow produce and preserve a fair amount of that, there are plenty of things we don’t have or can’t get in winter – That’s where an outfit like Dandelion really comes in handy. We crave fresh veggies in the dreary months, when supermarket fare is often less than stellar. Seeing a box of local, fresh produce really lifts our spirits, and it certainly sparks creativity in our kitchen. When M added a head of really gorgeous lettuce to our last order, she said ‘lettuce wraps,’ and I got busy.
Are you one who sneers at lettuce? If you’re of the opinion that lettuce, like celery, is a tasteless veggie, you’re not all that wrong – far too much of what we find in grocery stores is a pale shadow of the real deal. Like commercial apples not so long ago, what you find in stores is iceberg, romaine, and one or two varieties of leaf – they’re usually not local, and they’re not grown for taste – they’re made to travel and store well, and that’s why they generally suck. The image below underlines this trend. That’s a field of iceberg lettuce – Study that and ask yourself, when was the last time the iceberg you saw in the store looked like this?
Lettuce is a member of the daisy family – Asteraceae. It was first cultivated in Egypt around 3,500 years ago, grown for seeds that produce cooking oil, (and in some places still is). It was initially a plant 2 to 3 feet tall that looked like a mutant head of Romaine. Lettuce spread quickly, courtesy of the Greeks and Romans, and by the first century AD, had taken root across the known world. China leads world cultivation these days, by leaps and bounds in fact – And yes, it’s still grown in Egypt. There are six major cultivars – Leaf, Cos (Romaine), Crisphead (Iceberg), Butterhead (Boston or Bibb), Celtuce (Stem), and Oilseed. From those big branches stem hundreds of varieties, many of which are imbued with marvelous taste and texture – And you can grow many of them, so do – Make a salad from lettuces out your own garden, and you’ll know it’s wonderful stuff.
Lettuce, (and plenty of other leaves), have played a part in cooking and eating pretty much since us apes went bipedal – Food has been cooked in, plated on, served with, and wrapped in them – and still is. Little bites of meat, fish, poultry, or starchy vegetables wrapped in leaves, especially lettuce, is ubiquitous throughout Asian cuisines. I love such things, because you get a purer taste of what you’re eating than you would with something starchy, like bread, tortillas, pancakes, masa, or any of the other myriad sandwich wrappers employed – it’s also generally pretty darn healthy and remarkably tasty.
The challenge comes in finding lettuce strong and tasty enough to do the job. Romaine will work, but it usually tastes like cardboard. What you want is something from the Butterhead cultivar – a lovely head of Butter, Boston, or Bibb lettuce. These are robust enough to handle being stuffed, are far prettier than most other varieties, and taste great. They can be a bit pricier than simpler stuff, but if you get 12+ wrappable leaves out of a head, it costs about the same as dozen tortillas.
Chicken is a great protein for doing up an Asian inspired wrap dish, but so would fresh, firm tofu, fish, pork, or beef. If you use meat, it doesn’t have to be fancy – there’s a marinating step in this recipe, so even tougher cuts will get some time and help toward breaking down tougher tissues. A lot of the chicken lettuce wrap recipes out there advocate breast, but I do not – that is about the most expensive piece you can find, and the standard American white meat chicken breast hasn’t much flavor – yes, a marinade will help fix that, but why not use something that has some? Skin on, bone in thighs are the trick – Lots of flavor, cheap, and easy to prep – and a lot more authentic to boot.
As for that marinade – Rather than go for something point specific, I built a reasonably faithful mashup that holds true to regional cuisines and is a bit exotic to us Americans. Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisines all use soy sauce, albeit they have specific variations they prefer – those are worth checking out, as they’re quite distinct. Hoisin sauce also crosses several borders, it’s often thought of as a generic Asian barbecue sauce. Rice wine and sesame oil are ubiquitous as well.
1. Since this is a marinating recipe, you’ll need to allow time for that.
2. I pickled or dressed some of the veggie filling options, because we like that sort of thing- you don’t have to if it doesn’t float your boat – I included recipes just in case, as well as for peanut sauce.
Urban’s Asian Inspired Chicken Thighs
Chicken and Marinade:
1 1/2 to 2 Pound Chicken Thighs (Bone in, skin on – if you go boneless/skinless, a pound is plenty)
1/2 Cup Light Soy Sauce, (as in, light versus dark, not ‘lite’ as in abomination)
1/4 Cup Hoisin Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1-3 fresh Serrano Chiles
1” chunk fresh Ginger Root
2 fat cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Fish Sauce
Rinse, stem and dice chiles – you can field strip the membranes if you’re a heat weenie.
Peel and mince the garlic and ginger.
Combine everything but the chicken in a non-reactive mixing bowl, whisk to incorporate, and allow to marry at room temp while you prep the chicken.
Bone in, skin on chicken thighs – where the flavor is.
Remove skin and extra fat from thighs, then debone – the skin will pull off easily from one side, and the bones are mostly loose – a little careful paring will free them.
Toss your bones and skin into 6 cups of water with a little onion, celery, and carrot and you can simmer up some stock to have on hand for whatever – Most of the fat in chicken skin is unsaturated, BTW.
Cut the chicken into roughly 1/2” slices across the short side of each thigh.
Pack the sliced chicken into a bowl or storage container and pour the marinade over it – work it in so that everything is well coated. Marinate refrigerated for at least 2 hours, and 4 to 6 is even better.
Lettuce and Fillings –
10-12 leaves Butter Lettuce
1 Cup Mung Bean Sprouts
1 packed Cup Savoy or Napa Cabbage
1/2 Cup Carrot
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion
1 Cup cooked Thai cellophane noodles
1/2 Cup Roasted Peanuts, rough chopped
1/2 Cup Cilantro, rough chopped
Rinse and pat dry sprouts.
Slice cabbage into roughly 1/2” shreds. If you like this dressed, add 1 tablespoon of roasted sesame oil, and 2 teaspoons of rice vinegar, and toss to coat.
Slice carrot into roughly 2” matchsticks, and onion into 2” pieces
Pour boiling water over noodles in a mixing bowl and steep for a minute or so, until they’re al dente. Pour out hot water and rinse noodles with cold water, then drain. Place in a bowl with a teaspoon of avocado oil and mix by hand to coat the noodles.
Put the onions and carrots in a small non-reactive bowl, and add
1 Cup White vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Celery Seed
1/2 teaspoon Coriander
1/2 teaspoon Turmeric
Whisk with a fork to incorporate and let the mix marinate at room temperature
If you like peanut sauce, here’s my fave version –
1/2 Cup smooth natural, unsweetened Peanut Butter
2 Tablespoons Light Soy Sauce, (See above, not ‘lite’)
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon fresh Lime Juice
1-2 teaspoons Sriracha Sauce
2-3 Cloves fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2” fresh Ginger Root
1-3 Tablespoons Warm Water
Peel, trim, and fine grate ginger and garlic.
Combine everything but the water and whisk with a fork to incorporate.
Add water, about a tablespoon at a shot, until you each the sauce consistency you like.
Allow to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving.
When you’re ready to eat, set all the fillings out in bowls so folks can load up at the table.
Separate lettuce leaves, then gently wash in cold water and pat dry with a clean towel. Arrange on a platter.
Pour out most of the marinade, but leave the chicken well coated, and some of the goodies too.
In a large skillet over medium high heat, sauté the chicken until fully cooked, stirring and flipping steadily, about 4-6 minutes. This is also a great thing to stir fry in a wok, if you’re of a mind.
Transfer chicken to a serving platter, top with a few chopped nuts and some cilantro, and dig in.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reserve 1 cup of past water, then drain the pasta into a colander.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Step, peel, trim and rough chop fennel.
In a dry, heavy skillet over medium high heat, sear the beef thoroughly on all sides.
Transfer beef to a slow cooker, then add stock and all other ingredients.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever lived in the southern part of the U.S.A., then you’ve likely experienced the tradition of eating black-eyed peas, (AKA, Hoppin’ John), on New Year’s Day – Doing so is believed to be not only a harbinger of prosperity in the new year, but a pretty decent hangover cure as well. Other anointed foods for New Years include pork, corned beef and cabbage, whole fish, and even ring shaped eats.
Here at UrbanMonique, we went to bed quite early on New Year’s Eve, but we still like to hedge our bets. As such, we decided it was a perfect night for M’s stunningly delicious split pea soup. That decision was made all the easier by the fact that we had leftover ham from Christmas, (including a gorgeous bone), and some amazing pea stock we froze back in the summer after harvesting snap peas from the garden. Split pea soup kinda gets a bad rap for the same reason Brussels sprouts do – Lackluster cooking, or overcooking, leads to less than stellar results – We’re here to shatter that reputation.
I hail from New England, where split pea soup has always been quite popular. Legend has it this dish was introduced to the region by southward migrating Québécois, but the ubiquity of split peas throughout many cultures may dispel that. Cultivars of Pisum sativum have been favored by humans for millennia – Romans and Greeks were growing them as far back as 500 B.C.E. – Given their propensity for far flung travel and conquest, it’s a safe bet they got them from somebody else. And in any age before modern food preservation, it’s a sure thing that drying peas was standard practice, as it still is today.
Harkening back to my comment about lackluster versions of split pea soup, it’s no surprise, frankly, when we recall the old rhyme, ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.’ Lets face it, if that was good eating, we’d all still be doing it. Starting out with high quality, fresh ingredients will quickly dispel that nightmarish vision. Your journey toward that end must start with the peas themselves. Many of us have a bag of the little green guys in our pantry, straight from the store – It’s just as likely that said bag of peas has been in your pantry since the Pleistocene era too, right? If so, that’s a problem right off the bat. Dried peas, beans, etc will last a very long time, if stored properly, but left in the original plastic bag and tossed onto a shelf in the pantry doesn’t qualify as ‘proper’. The main adversary for split peas is oxygen, and that’s the case for pretty much all legumes, pulses, etc. The solution is a decent quality, air tight container – With those in use, you can easily get 3 to 5 years of storage, and if you add an oxygen absorber, like Oxy-Sorb, which is specifically made for the purpose, you ou’ll easily extend your shelf life to 10 years or more. Oxy-Sorb is great stuff, cheap, and readily available, by the way – A 100 pack costs about ten bucks, delivered from numerous online sources, and big chain grocery stores sell it as well – Same goes for decent quality food storage vessels, (and frankly, you’d be hard pressed to do better than quart, half gallon, or gallon mason jars for that job.)
As with all great soups and stews, great split pea soup depends on carefully chosen components and a specific process of assembly. It is a simple dish, but nonetheless, there are definitive steps that need to be followed. As always, this begins with the essentials, (other than peas, of course) – That’s good ham with a nice, big bone, fresh aromatics, stock, and seasoning. As for the latter, all too often what’s used for split pea soup is what’s suggested on the plastic bag they come in, AKA, water. While water sure works, stock is so much better, and is key to great soup.
Vegetable or chicken stock will work great, and if you’ve been keeping up with class, then you’ve taken opportunities to make and freeze stock along the way. As mentioned previously, back in July we had a bumper crop of snap peas, and took steps to harvest and preserve those – In so doing, the inspiration for pea stock hit me and we made some – It was and is incredible stuff – a lovely translucent green, with a scent redolent of fresh peas, even when defrosted some six months later – There’s a testimonial to why we freeze, dry, can, or otherwise preserve great home grown food, if ever there was one, (That doesn’t mean you need to have matched us overachievers – Use what you’ve got – Homemade preferred, but store bought is just fine.)
And while we’re talking homemade, if and when you get a nice bone, never, ever throw it out. Sure, your critters will love ’em, but your house made stocks and broths will love ’em even more. As for aromatics – It’s a safe bet that in too many home kitchens, the carrots, onion, garlic, celery and the like might be a bit long in the tooth by the time you get around to using them – In a word, don’t do that. The French have it right when they go to the market almost daily – If it’s worth making and eating, it’s worth fresh ingredients – Don’t buy the big bags of bulk carrots, onions, etc – Go to the market frequently, and poke, prod, smell, and look when you shop – Reject the rubbery, the off colored, or too soft, and carefully pick fresh stuff – That is one of the real joys of shopping, so take advantage.
And finally, there’s seasoning. I’ve said this before and will again – If you’re buying herbs and spices from the grocery store, you’re missing out. If you’re using spices from a cute little revolving wheel thingy, and the spices came with that, and you got it when you got married, you’re fired. Herbs and spices have very bit as much a shelf life as other foods, and less so than some – they’re good for 6 months or so, if they’ve been prepared and stored properly. If your wheel o’ spices is out where sunlight hits it on a regular basis, your stuff is toast and needs to be replaced. If it’s not from a high quality source, like World Spice, Penzeys, Pendereys, to name just a few, you’ve no guarantee that what your buying is up to snuff – And finally, never use my sainted Father’s wine buying plan when it comes to spice – The more you get for less dough is not a successful strategy.
So, with all that, here’s the scoop.
M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup
4 Cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock
2 Cups Water
2 Cups (about 1/2 pound), Ham
1 nice big Ham Bone
1 Pound dried Split Peas
2 large Carrots
3 stalks Celery
2 Tablespoons chopped Shallot
3 cloves Garlic
1-2 Tablespoons Parsely
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red Chile
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil.
In a stock pot over medium high heat, combine water, stock and the ham bone. When the stock begins to boil, reduce heat until its barely maintaining a simmer. Allow the stock and bone to simmer for 60 minutes.
Rough chop ham, cut carrots into half-rounds about 1/4″ thick, chop celery, dice shallot and mince garlic.
Zest lemon, cut in half.
Place peas in a single mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water, checking for non-food detritus.
In a soup pot over medium heat, add oil and heat through. Add carrot, celery, and shallot. Sauté until the shallot begins to turn translucent.
Remove Bone from stock and allow to cool, then give it to your dawg.
Add stock, water, ham, and split peas to soup pot with aromatics over medium heat. Stir to incorporate. When the soup starts to boil, reduce heat to barely maintain a slow simmer. Simmer soup for 1-2 hours, until the split peas are where you like them – just slightly al dente is the sweet spot.
Add parsley, lemon thyme, a tablespoon of lemon zest, pepper, Chile, and salt. Stir to incorporate and taste, adjust seasoning as desired. Allow the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes.
Serve nice and hot, garnished with a little more fresh lemon zest and shot or two of hot sauce if you like such things. A dollop of fresh sour cream doesn’t suck, either.
Serve with crusty bread and a glass of decent Zinfandel, and you’re in hog heaven.
It’s 40° F this morning, with a 17 knot wind out of the northeast, putting the wind chill at about 34° F. And it’s rained 3/4″ in the last two days, with more on the way. Can you say, Comfort Food? Sure, I knew ya could… Days like this call for something that conjures childhood memories of coming in from a frigid Massachusetts winter, to a house redolent with the rich smells of good things to eat. Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov, is what I’ve got in mind, and I’m willing to bet that merely reading those words has already gone to work on you, too. I’m talking authentic beef stroganoff here, which raises an important question – What exactly is authentic, in this regard? Let’s find out.
Invariably, if you’re a student of food history at all, you’ve heard some version of the origin story for beef stroganoff. Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov was the Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia under Czar Alexander III, in the early 19th century, and later the Governor-General of Novorossiysk and Bessarabia. He was also the president of the historical society, a famous and wealthy man, and a bit of a gourmand. The rest of the story goes, in essence, that he collaborated with his French Chef to invent Beef Stroganov, which took Russia by storm, winning awards throughout the country, and is still with us today. While the modern dish is surely named Stroganoff, the origin story is kinda cloudy when you get down to brass tacks. And by the way, there are some serious issues with most modern recipes – More on that shortly.
Here are a few facts – first, the dish attributed to the Stroganov family is an age old Russian favorite – sautéed beef in sour cream sauce. Secondly, the upper crust during Czarist times loved all things French – Many spoke French at home and sent their kids to French schools, and French cuisine was considered especially à la mode. Third, many Russian cooks were French trained, and families who could afford to hire a genuine French Chef would do so in a heartbeat.
There is also evidence to support the belief that at least one Stroganov Count had a French Chef, though I’ve yet to read anything definitive attributed to which one was the one. While most popular versions tap Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov as the creator, there are rival claims for Counts Pavel Alexandrovich and Sergei Grigorievich as well. The first published recipe that specifically called the dish Beef Stroganov I’m aware of appeared in a cookbook written by Elena Molokovhets in 1861, (A Gift For Young Housewives). It’s also true that, thirty years later, in Saint Petersburg, a French Chef named Charles Briere was awarded a blue ribbon for a dish he called Beef Stroganov. But at that point, Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov had been dead for almost 75 years, and the youngest candidate, Sergei, had died in 1882. Nothing I read definitively tied Briere to the Stroganovs either – Clear as mud, right?
In any case, it’s certainly plausible that a French Chef might tweak either a rustic Russian favorite, (or for that matter, a French fricassee de boeuf), making it more suitable for refined Russian palates. And it’s still most likely, for my mind, that the dish came to fame with Count Alexander, who reportedly was a serious party hound. Certainly the French-Russian twist is evident in the truest version of the dish – sautéing beef, and then whipping up a pan sauce flavored with mustard is absolutely French, while beef in sour cream defines Russian fare to a T.
When the Communist Revolution engulfed Russia and buried the last of the Czars, many who were able fled their home country. Naturally, they took their favorite dishes with them. Beef Stroganov migrated first to China, where Shanghai was known as The Paris of the East – There is where it likely was first pared with rice, and where soy or fish sauce of some kind would have been introduced as well. The dish also worked its way through what would become the soviet block countries, and eventually to America – There, in New York City in 1927, the Russian Tea Room opened, with Beef Stroganoff on the menu. It was around this time and through these gyrations and upheavals that the name apparently changed from Stroganov to Stroganoff.
Enough of the history – Onward to the stuff commonly associated with beef Stroganov that, frankly, shouldn’t be – Please note, I’m not saying you can’t do these things – I’m merely pointing out that, if authentic is important, this stuff won’t be in the mix. Pretty much the entire no-no list came from American ‘improvements’ to the dish.
Mushrooms – Russian purists say unequivocally that mushrooms in beef stroganoff is inauthentic. You can do it if you dig it, but try it at least once without. Mushrooms are potent – They add a number of elements of taste and texture that can easily overwhelm what should be a delicate balance of flavors. So if you do add them, make them good ones, and pay attention to proportion – half to a loose full cup is plenty – And for the record? Yeah, I add them – Shiitakes from our tribe in Minnesota, along with a half cup of steeping liquid.
Served on Noodles – Never done in Russia. Served over mashed or roasted potatoes, or accompanied by fried potatoes are the ways it was done, and later, over rice as well. Don’t get me wrong, freshly made egg noodles are great with Stroganoff, but you owe it to yourself to try the more authentic accompaniments – And doing so gives you a built in excuse to make several batches…
Adding canned cream of mushroom soup. Please, just don’t, ever. That stuff is just so wrong, I shouldn’t need to elaborate further. I don’t care if your mom and aunt Sally used it – Just don’t.
Adding ketchup/catsup. While I found, (and endorse), the use of tomato paste and honey in the seasoning mix, ketchup ain’t the way to get there. The balance is way off, and frankly, even good store bought ketchup doesn’t taste much like tomatoes. The idea is to get a little sweet note and a little msg umami feel into the recipe, and there’s much better, more balanced ways to do that, as you’ll see shortly.
Ground beef, or cheap stew cuts. Remember what I said last week about choosing beef? You certainly can make Stroganoff with these cuts and grinds, but to do it right, what you need is a nice quality, lean cut. Top sirloin, eye of the round, tenderloin will all do a great job. Stroganoff, done right, is fork tender, almost melt in your mouth, and it doesn’t require long stewing or braising time, so a good quality cut is mission critical to achieving that end. Again, you can use that other stuff in a pinch, but if you want to make the version fit for a Count, you need pretty good beef.
What you certainly can do is use a protein other than beef. While some hard cores claim only kow is korrect, plenty of genuine Russian history and recipes I chased down indicated that pork, lamb, and chicken all were used from time to time in the old country, and you can too. And for that matter, tofu sautéed to a nice crispy crust, with a soft, cream interior, is also pretty spectacular, if I do say so myself.
This recipe is an amalgam of several authentic versions. Those recipes varied from absolutely simple to quite complex. I took the common ground from all of them, as well as a couple of my favorite tweaks from the dish’s travels, to arrive where I did. I encourage you to dig in deeper and come up with one of your own – But try mine first. That said, whatever version you make, pay attention to the technique I’m showing here. I guarantee you it’ll make the most incredible Stroganov you’ve ever tasted, or your money back!
Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique
1 Pound Beef Sirloin or Tenderloin
1 small Sweet Onion
1 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup Beef Stock
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil (Olive Oil is fine)
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
2 teaspoons Honey
1 teaspoon Soy Sauce
2 drops Fish Sauce
Trim all fat and connective tissue from beef, and reserve that stuff.
In a cast iron skillet over low heat, add a pinch of salt and all the trimmed fat, etc. cook on low, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered out of the trimmings, about 15 minutes.
Peel, trim, and slice onion into thin 1/8″ thick rings, then cut those into quarters.
Remove the trimmings from the skillet, and bring heat up to medium. If your beef trimmings didn’t render enough fat to coat the pan, add a little oil.
Add onions to the skillet, stir to coat with the rendered fat, and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Reduce heat to medium low and sweat the onions – This is done with the heat initially fairly high, then reduced – Its a quick process, 2 or 3 minutes, with steady stirring. The onions will look glossy and wet, but do not brown them.
Add the beef stock and butter to the skillet and stir, add another pinch of salt and a twist or two of Pepper. If you’ve been good and made demi glacé, pull a cube or two from the freezer and add it to the pan as well. Stir to incorporate, and reduce heat to low.
With a meat hammer, pound the trimmed beef lightly to tenderize. If you have a decent meat hammer, then the trick is to let the tool’s weight do the work – Don’t add muscle to the pounding, just guide the tool – You want your beef to end up about 1/2″ thick.
Cut the beef into strips about 1 1/2″ long and 1/2″ thick. Transfer to a non-reactive bowl.
Check your onions and stock. Give them a stir, and keep the heat low enough that they do not simmer.
Add flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, honey, and fish sauce to the beef and mix by hand until thoroughly and evenly coated.
Transfer onions and stock to a mixing bowl.
Increase heat to medium high and add a tablespoon of avocado oil to the skillet. When the pan is nice and hot, add the beef and sauté quickly, turning constantly. Cook for about 2 minutes until the beef is lightly browned.
Turn the heat under the skillet off, and add the onions and stock to the beef. Stir to incorporate. Cover the pan and allow the dish to sit for at least 30 minutes, and an hour is better yet.
When you’re about ready to eat, uncover the skillet and turn the heat to medium low. Allow the Stroganov to heat through, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the dish to boil or simmer vigorously – Nice and easy does it on the reheat. This will take about 15 minutes to heat the dish through.
When your Stroganov has 5 minutes of reheating left, add the sour cream, taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired. Stir gently to incorporate, and every minute or so thereafter – Again, do not allow the dish to boil, or you’ll break the delicate sauce.
Serve over rice, or mashed potatoes, with a salad or green vegetable. Garnish with parsley, cilantro, or basil, and chopped tomato if you like.
There’s no doubt that a great batch of homemade spaghetti sauce is serious comfort food. In an ideal world, you want to make something that cooks low and slow, developing serious flavors, but what about when you get a hankering at 4:45 in the afternoon? Here’s how I scratch that itch. This is a simple sauce that tastes much richer than it might sound, and I assure you, it’s incredible the next day. The fresh veggies, citrus, pungent lemon thyme, piney savory, and subtle, herby sweetness of the marjoram is the key – Spaghetti Sauce a la Urban.
For the proteins, keep in mind that you can and should grind your own at home; if you don’t have the capability for that, dice it and you’ll be fine. If you prefer a vegetarian version, I’d substitute firm local tofu, or eggplant. Make sure all your veggies and proteins are as fresh as can be. Do use whole canned tomatoes; they hold more flavor than stewed, crushed, diced, etc, the quality is often better than fresh at this time of year, and they’re certainly less expensive.
8 Ounces Fresh Angel Hair Pasta
2 20 oz cans Whole Tomatoes
1/2 Pound Ground Pork
1/2 Pound Angus Beef
1 Cup Black Olives
1/2 Sweet Onion
1/2 Sweet Pepper
1 Stalk Celery
1 small Lemon
1/2 small Lime
3-4 Cloves Garlic
2-3 Sprigs Parsley
1/2 – 1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 – 1 teaspoon Savory
1/2 teaspoon Marjoram
2 whole Bay Leaves
1 Cup Red Wine
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Toss the tomatoes into a large pot over medium low heat. Process with an immersion blender until you’ve got the consistency you like. I prefer to leave things a bit rustic, rather than going all the way to smooth sauce.
Rinse, peel, top and seed the onion, sweet pepper, celery, garlic, citrus, and parsley. Fine dice the onion, pepper, olives, and celery; if you have celery leaves, by all means, use them, that’s where the real flavor is. Mince the garlic, chiffonade the parsley. Quarter the citrus.
In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, add the beef and pork, and season lightly with salt and pepper. When the meats are nicely browned, add the cup of red wine and continue cooking until the raw alcohol smell goes away. Add the proteins to the tomato blend
Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to the sauté pan and allow to heat through. Add onion and pepper and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell is gone. Add all that to the big pot
Add 1/2 Cup of Sherry to the sauté pan and deglaze, thoroughly scraping up all the little bits. Once the raw alcohol smell has burned off, add that to the pot as well.
Squeeze citrus into the big pot, stir to incorporate. Crush by hand and add the lemon lemon thyme, savory, and marjoram. Add parsley and bay leaves, stir to incorporate. Taste and adjust salt and pepper seasoning as/if needed.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or two, stirring regularly.
Serve Over fresh angel hair pasta, with freshly grated Parmegiano, crusty bread, a nice green salad and a glass or two of Old Vine Zinfandel.
The next day, add a cup of cheese to the blend, and bake for 30 minutes at 350° F. As promised, it’ll be spectacular.