Banh Mi

Asked for reflective advice shortly before he died, the venerable rocker Warren Zevon thought for a moment, and then replied, “enjoy every sandwich.” There’s sage advice in that simple thought. Few things tell more about a chef than what kind of sandwich they offer, and the same goes for the choice a diner makes. Given the incredible depth and breadth of options out there, I’ll just come straight out and say that you’d be absolutely hard pressed to do better than an authentic, house made Banh Mi sandwich.

When we dive into sandwich history, invariably we come to the old saw regarding John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who lived in the seventeen hundreds, and reportedly ‘invented’ his namesake treat. Montagu, during an epic poker game in the winter of 1762, called for cold meat in between two slices of bread so that he wouldn’t have to break away from the game to eat. His culinary trick caught on, and subsequently, the thing began to be referred to as a sandwich – Now, all that said, there’s no doubt the dish has roots far deeper and broader than one game of five card draw.

Whether it’s a Reuben in Omaha, a torta in Mexico, smoked meat in Canada, vada pav in India, katsu sando in Japan, medianoche in Cuba, chacarero in Chile, or doner kebabs in Turkey, they’re all variations on the sandwich theme, and they’re all delicious – And none more so than a perfectly constructed banh mi.

Banh Mi is, of course, Vietnamese, with some foreign influence integral to the sandwich. The foreign would be French, who, like so many other empire builders, (Us Merkans, for instance), were eventually drummed out of Vietnam, but if they left some good behind, their influence on Vietnamese cuisine was undoubtedly it. Bread was non-existent in Vietnam before the French – Now baguette shops are ubiquitous throughout the country, (In Vietnam, baguettes are made from rice flour, by the way, so a real Vietnamese baguette has a delightfully light taste and crumb). Onions, potatoes, asparagus, and meat broth were adopted heartily, the latter leading to arguable the most famous Vietnamese culinary export, the joy that is Pho.

That said, don’t by any means assume that Vietnam was a culinary backwater prior to colonization – Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Vietnamese have always excelled at not only surviving, but thriving in good times and bad – A key part of that adaptability is the willingness to try and adopt new things – especially true when it comes to food. Vietnam and their largest neighbor, China, have cross pollinated culinarily for thousands of years. Everything from noodles and won tons, to chiles and corn made their way south from China and were adopted heartily by the Vietnamese.

That said, there are key aspects of Vietnamese culinary philosophy that color everything there, including the banh mi. At the core of this cooking is the balance of distinct, strong flavor profiles – spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. Per the Vietnamese culinary tradition, each flavor corresponds with an organ in our bodies – gall bladder, small intestines, large intestines, stomach, and bladder, accordingly. The mantra of five continues further – Vietnamese cooks strive to include five essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish. Finally, a balance between what is thought of as the heating or cooling properties of various ingredients is considered – The juxtaposition of jalapeño and mayonnaise in a classic banh mi, for example.

That classic banh mi is far simpler than what you probably have tasted. Banh mi thit nguoi, sometimes called the special, (Dac biet), is a baguette, sliced in two and given a hearty schmear of house made liver pate – That’s how it was for many decades and still is, in many Vietnamese deli’s. Banh mi has evolved, however, to our great fortune. Nowadays, you’ll find subtly complex sauces, pickled and fresh vegetables, and proteins from tofu, to char siu pork, roast chicken, or grilled pork, and of course, beef here in the states. Almost any protein you dig will work, which makes banh mi the perfect vehicle for leftovers. The veggies vary as well, but almost always include chiles, cilantro, cucumber, and a tart-sweet pickled daikon, carrot, or onion. That fancier, loaded version became popular in south Vietnam, especially in Saigon, and it’s that version that has spread around the globe more than any other.

Two of the things needed for a classic banh mi are things that you probably don’t have laying around your kitchens – One you’ll have to make, and the other buy, or sub for. They are the daikon or radish pickle, and Maggi seasoning. The pickle is easy as all get out to make, and we’ve got a recipe for you below. That’ll need at least an hour before you use them, and a couple to a few are even better, so consider making that ahead of meal time. The Maggi seasoning is, frankly, pretty much pure MSG and sodium, although the recipe varies depending on where it’s made, (Maggi is ubiquitous in Asian cooking, but it actually originated in Switzerland back in the 1800s). If you have an Asian grocery, you’ll find it there, and of course it can be bought from Amazon as well. It comes in various sizes, from around 5 ounces on up to 28 and 32 ounce bottles – If you decide to try it, get a small bottle – A little goes a long way. I’m going to assume you don’t have Maggi, and as such, I’ll offer a sub that’ll work just fine and taste delicious to boot. Finally, we like a light cabbage slaw on our banh mi, so I’ll shoot you a recipe for that as well.

Pickled daikon or radish is key to Banh mi
Pickled daikon or radish is key to Banh mi

For the Pickled Daikon.
You may sub regular radishes if your grocery doesn’t have decent daikon, as ours did not when I wrote this post.
5-6 Radishes
1/2 Cup White Vinegar
1/2 Cup cold Water
1/2 teaspoon Bakers Sugar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

Rinse and stem radishes, then slice into 1/8″ thick rounds. If you use daikon, slice those into matchstick size, and the same goes for carrots if you decide to go that route – Use the same brine on all three options.

Combine all remaining ingredients and stir briskly to dissolve salt and sugar.

Place radishes in a non-reactive container, cover with the brine and allow to sit for 1 to 4 hours prior to use.

For the Slaw
2-3 1/4″ thick slices Green and Red Cabbage
1 small Carrot
1-2 slices Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt

Slice the carrot and onion – Onion into thin slivers, and carrot into match stick size.

Rough chop the Cabbage slices.

Transfer all to a mixing bowl, add the vinegar and salt and toss to coat.

For the Sauce
1 Cup Mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Cider Vinegar
3-5 drops Fish Sauce
1-2 drops Worcestershire

Combine and thoroughly whisk all ingredients together in a small bowl.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes prior to use.

For the Banh Mi
1/2 Pound Protein of choice
Fresh Baguette
3-4 Jalapeño chiles
1 Cuccumber
5-6 sprig Cilantro
Banh Mi Sauce
slaw
Pickled Radishes

Banh mi - a study of balance and flavor
Banh mi – a study of balance and flavor

For whatever protein you decide on, (we used beef for ours), slice very thin.

Cut baguette into roughly 6-8″ long chunks, then slice in half. It’s customary to take the soft gut of the bread out, leaving more room for goodies.

Stem and seed Jalapeños, then slice into very thin rings.

Slice cucumber into very thin rings.

Rough chop cilantro.

Arrange all the goodies so that each person can load their own banh mi.

Put a generous amount of the sauce on both sides of the baguette, then layer up, starting with your protein and ending with the slaw.

Banh mi, final assembly
Banh mi, final assembly

Now, you’ve got your balance of flavors and colors, (The Soy in your Sauce handles the black, btw), and you’ll make all your organs happy!

Banh mi
Banh mi

Fold ’em up and dig in.

Goes great with a local lager or pilsner.

Practical Meal Planning

My friend Mark Conley is a follower here, (and also a purty durn good guitar maker and educator, too!) After our last post on slow cookers, he asked this million dollar question about practical meal planning,

‘It is just me and my wife most dinners. Is this practical for us? I don’t like making massive amounts of food!’

Thank you, Buddy, for asking, because we seriously need to cover this stuff. The answer is yes, it’s not only practical, but it makes more sense than most other plans. Here’s why

M and I live with just our two critters, so all our cooking is for two. We cook throughout the week, of course, but what we make is often determined on short notice – By what looks good, sounds good, or comes in a flash or inspiration. We typically have one day off together, Sunday. Our ritual is coffee in bed, then breakfast in town, followed by shopping.

Generally, the center piece of that trip to the grocery store is one thing around which we’ll generate several meals. As y’all know, we’re omnivores, so that’s often chicken, pork, or beef – We buy a whole bird, or a large roast, and cook that on Sunday, and then enjoy several meals thereafter.

If you’re not doing something similar, you really should be – It’s far more efficient than coming up with something out of the blue every night, and it makes cooking much easier, which is imperative when you both work long hours as we do. Having a main course protein already cooked or ready to go is key. And it needn’t be meat, for that matter – tofu, cheese, and beans will all provide what you need and are just as delicious as fleshy stuff.

Fresh roasted veggies
Fresh roasted veggies

Of course, to do this right, you need a lot of good stuff, staples like fresh veggies and fruit, potatoes, pasta, tortillas, beans, oils and vinegars, and the like – And especially as we roll into the cold months, there’s nothing at all wrong with having a decent stable of canned and frozen goodies. We keep decent, organic cheese pizzas on hand, as well as frozen pasta, veggies, and fruit – A combination of bought and stuff we put up during the growing months. Add a decent rack of spices, herbs, and seasonings, and you’re good to go – Inspiration can strike at will.

Here’s a basic rundown in what we did with two of those primary proteins throughout the week, including alternate meals to break up the pattern and keep things interesting.

Clay cooker roast chicken
Clay cooker roast chicken

Whole organic, free range Chicken.

Sunday – Roast chicken and veggies, green salad.

Monday – Pizza with chicken, tomato, jalapeño, and fennel.

Chicken pizza with tomato, jalapeño, and fennel
Chicken pizza with tomato, jalapeño, and fennel

Remaining chicken pulled from bones. Carcass into a stock pot with remaining roasted veggies, and fresh mire poix, for stock – Refrigerated overnight.

Tuesday – Mac and Cheese, green salad.
Stock clarified, refrigerated.

House made Mac & Cheese
House made Mac & Cheese

Weds – leftover Mac & Cheese, (’cause it’s even better the next day!)

Thursday – Chicken soup, made with a 3 bean medley, tomatoes, onion, sweet peppers, green beans, peas and corn.

House made chicken veggie soup
House made chicken veggie soup

Friday – Chicken tacos with red mole, (frozen in an ice cube tray, so super fast to prepare), fresh lettuce and pico de gallo.

Chicken and red mole tacos
Chicken and red mole tacos

Saturday – Free for all leftovers.
Second Run – Local, choice sirloin roast.

Sunday – Roast beef and root veggies, fresh green salad and local sour dough.

Monday – Roast beef hash for brunch.

Tuesday – Beef nachos with onion, tomato, jalapeño, sharp cheddar, fresh salsa and sour cream.

Wednesday – Big ol’ garden salads and sour dough.

Thursday – Beef Chimichangas with fresh pico de gallo and sour cream.

Friday – Open faced cheese sandwiches with fresh veggies.

Saturday – Free for all leftovers.

Now granted, this isn’t anything magical, but it’s incredible tasty fare that’s good for you, and none of these meals take more than 30 minutes to prepare. When we get that Sunday plan done, it’s just a matter of what sounds good through the week, and sometimes meals are chosen predominantly for ease of prep.

If any of these particularly float your boat and you want a detailed recipe, just pipe up, and we’ll make it happen.

Real Deal Fried Rice

The difference between authentic, regional Chinese cooking and the Americanized versions most of us were exposed to in the Twentieth century is vast indeed. That said, we were raised on the latter before discovering the former, so there are times when we jones for the cheap seats. Nonetheless, there are genuine roots to all that Americanized stuff as well – Even sweet and sour whatever, or chop suey. Dishes made famous, (infamous?), here were generally a far cry from their authentic roots, due predominantly to a lack of proper ingredients. While Chinese immigrants often brought, grew, or made the tools and supplies needed for authentic cooking with them, those were neither truly desired by nor fed to American diners for many decades.

Happily, here in the 21st century, most, if not all of what you need to cook authentic regional Chinese dishes is readily available. Even in relatively small towns, there is often a thriving Asian market, and if not, it’s all there in online stores. Naturally, the recipe resources available to home chefs has blossomed as well; there are myriad cookbooks for virtually every Chinese cooking style and region, let alone classes, online videos, and groups dedicated to the exploration thereof.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

Without a doubt one of, if not the most beloved Americanized dishes, is fried rice, and for good reason. The combination of proteins, veggies, fruit, and sauces is almost limitless, and few dishes are more satisfying when made well. Add the fact that it’s a perfect use for leftover rice, and you’ve got a perennial winner. Naturally, this begs the question – Where did fried rice actually originate?

Frying rice in some form or another has been done for as long as man has been eating cereals, and recipes harken as far back as the sixth century AD. The most well known variety is often called Yangzhou, after the city in the east central coast of China; it includes roast pork, prawns, scallions, and green peas. This is still considered one of, if not the signature version of fried rice, served at Chinese restaurants throughout the world, and called either House, or Special fried rice. That popularity doesn’t necessarily apply to China herself – There, myriad variants of the dish are found, especially in the south where rice is a major staple – Everything from heavily sauced Fujian and Cantonese versions, to Chāhan flavored with Katsuobushi, (Bonito flakes), and the red and white, yin-yang Yuan style. And that’s just China – There are signature versions from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Europe. There’s a Hawaiian version with Spam, and an ‘American’ version in Thailand served with hot dogs and catsup, and more varieties from South America and Cuba as well.

While you certainly can and should check out those recipes, the ubiquity of the dish certainly encourages exploration in the kitchen. Like spaghetti sauce, or mac and cheese, every household has a signature version that’s the best, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t add one of your own.

The real trick to great fried rice lies no so much in the add-ons, but in what rice you use – for the best results, you want cold, day old rice – or even frozen, (and that should be all the reason you need to save leftover rice every chance you get). The reason is moisture, or lack thereof. If you’ve ever tried making fried rice from fresh stuff, chances are you ended up with something soggier than you wanted. Using refrigerated, day old allows the rice grains to dry out somewhat, yielding nicely separated grains, and the slightly chewy texture we’re after. For longer storage, freeze rice in a ziplock bag with the air sucked out. Either way, once you’ve got your base material squared away, building whatever you like becomes a quick and easy task.

Long grain white rice is best for frying

Next question – what kind of rice is best? Long grained white will dependably cook up plump, distinct grains. This is due to a couple of important starch molecules, namely amylose, and amylopectin. Long grain white rice contains the highest concentration of amylose. This starch does not gelatinize when rice cooks, so varieties rich in it yield that fluffy stuff we’re after. Amylose also crystallizes and hardens when rice is cooled after cooking, but melts readily upon reheating, again lending itself perfect to frying over high heat. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice that is sticky and softer, and while that’s perfect for risotto or paella, it’s not so much for fried. Medium and short grain varieties are richer in this starch, while long grain white has significantly less. Thai jasmine rice is also long grained, but has less amylose, so can get a bit sticky. If you like the slightly sweeter taste of jasmine, Basmati might be a better choice for frying.

Restaurant woks at work

And finally before we cook, what about the best vessel for the job – to wok or not to wok, that is the question. The answer is, not absolutely necessary, but if you want the real McCoy, then only a wok over a really hot flame will give you that certain je ne sais quoi – the slightly grilled, smoky, almost burnt flavor notes great fried rice flaunts. When the weather allows here, we cook ours in a wok over the same propane powered burner we use for roasting coffee, outside – There’s no way I know of to get a hot enough flame inside, unless you’ve got a pretty serious commercial quality gas range.

A carbon steel wok on a propane burner

Cooking in a high carbon steel wok also imparts a certain flavor note of its own, just as cast iron does. It’s a subtle thing, but certainly notable and for my mind, highly desirable. If you don’t own a wok and decide to buy one, go with a 14″ like ours, with a flat bottom and double handles, one long, one short. Take great care to read up on the proper initial cleaning and seasoning of a new wok – failure to do so can literally sink your investment before you even get started. Now, all that said, you can do a perfectly fine job in a heavy skillet, but in any event, use the biggest thing you’ve got in your kitchen – a big cast iron skillet or Dutch oven is a fine alternative.

Alright, now that we have our pan chosen, here are a few basic guidelines for the overall process.

Get your pan as hot as you can safely get it, and use an oil with a high smoke point, like peanut or avocado. Those elusive grilled/smoky notes depend on it.

Use the biggest pan you’ve got – this is why even good home woks are 14″ – an overloaded pan won’t get hot enough to do the job right. If you’re cooking for more than two, do so in batches, as you would when deep frying.

Don’t overdo the sauce – Too much of a good thing will overpower the flavor of delicate ingredients, and will make your rice mushy as well. Note: most soy sauce you find in stores is considered dark, even if it doesn’t say so – Light soy is notably saltier and more assertive in taste, so should be used sparingly.

Alright – Here’s our version to get you started.

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice

UrbanMonique House Fried Rice
4-5 Cups cooked Rice, (1 Cup of dry long grain white should yield just right)
1/2 Pound Chinese Pork, fine diced
2 large Eggs
4-6 Scallions, trimmed and diced
1/2 Cup Chinese Long Beans, trimmed and diced
1/4 Cup Carrot, fine diced
1/4 Cup sweet Pepper, diced
1/4 Cup Green Peas
1-2 Tablespoons Avocado or Peanut Oil

For the Sauce
1 Tablespoon steaming hot Water
1 Tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Light Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon Honey or Agave Nectar
1/2 teaspoon Szechuan Pepper
1/4 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all sauce ingredients and whisk with a fork to incorporate. Allow flavors to marry for about 10 minutes before use.

Scramble eggs until fluffy, remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat your wok/pan over medium-high until it’s fully heated through.

Gently massage the cold rice by hand, to break up any and all clumps.

Turn the heat up to high, add a tablespoon of oil to the wok and let it heat through.

Add the carrots and peppers to the hot oil and fry for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the scallions, peas, and long beans and fry for another couple of minutes, until heated through.

Add the rice and pork, then fry for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the sauce and the eggs, stir to incorporate and heat through.

Serve piping hot.

Chiles Rellenos de Oaxaca

On a chilly, rainy Saturday morning, M and I set out for the local farmer’s market in Bellingham. On arrival, we found a thriving and well attended scene – it’s a thing I love about towns like this – Rainy weather does nothing to dissuade Bellinghamsters from their appointed rounds, any more than snow and cold did the Concordians of my youth.

Rain doesn't stop Bellinghamsters
What struck us as particularly vibrant was the surprising number of small farms represented, most of which were organic. The fall bounty of chiles, tomatoes, sausage, and cheese set my dinner plan in mind – Chiles rellenos de Oaxaca. We made our leisurely rounds, then headed home to cook.

Great produce at the farmer's market
You’ll find some variant of the Chile Relleno, ‘stuffed peppers’, all over Mexico. Most often, the chile used will be Poblanos, and rest assured that the people who share the same name, (folks from the State of Pueblo), lay claim to the origins of that famous dish. That said, the amazing number and breadth of relleno variants indicates that pretty much anywhere chiles grow, they are and have been stuffed for a long, long time.

Oaxacan Chiles
The typical chile relleno is stuffed with cheese, coated in an egg batter, and fried. You’ll see that throughout Mexico, and of course, up here in the states as well. The Oaxacan version, however, is a bit more robust – It is, technically, a chile relleno de picadillo, meaning stuffed with cheese and shredded or minced meat; everything from goat and lamb, to pork, beef, or chicken is used, as is chorizo, that singularly delightful Mexican fresh sausage. The other hallmark of Oaxacan rellenos is the range of chiles used; they grow a dizzying variety down there, and whatever looks good and is in season is as likely as not to end up stuffed. That’s a good thing for us all to embrace, frankly – Each chile brings a different level of taste, heat, and color to a dish, and variety is indeed a wonderful thing.

Fresh chorizo
Chorizo, or chouriço, is not indigenous to Mexico; it is an import from the Iberian Peninsula, where both Spain and Portugal lay claim to its origins. While the Spanish version uses smoked pork, the Mexican is made with fresh. There are as many varieties of chorizo as there are chiles, frankly, so defining The Real Recipe is a bit of a crap shoot. I’ve got a favorite recipe that I use, and I’ll share that here. I make Chorizo as a loose sausage, and you can too; it’s much simpler that way. If you’d rather buy and you’re from this neck of the woods, I’ll tell you that the Haggen’s version has been declared muy authentico by trusted Mexican friends, and after testing that claim, I agree wholeheartedly – It’s surprisingly good stuff. As promised, here’s my version.

Fresh Chorizo

2 pounds fresh ground local Pork
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
3 cloves Garlic, minced
2 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1-2 teaspoons flaked or ground Chipotle Chile
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon flaked Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black Pepper
3-5 Tablespoons Ice Water

Chill a large stainless steel mixing bowl in the freezer for about 20 minutes prior to building the chorizo. Pork should be refrigerated right up to the point of assembly.
Combine all ingredients in the cold bowl and mix by hand until you have a homogenous blend. You should end up with a nice moist, deeply red sausage.
Transfer sausage to a airtight, non-reactive container and place it in the freezer for about fifteen to twenty minutes.
Remove from freezer and refrigerate until ready to use.
If you’re not using the chorizo right away, wrap tightly in plastic, then aluminum foil and freeze.

Fresh Queso Blanco
The cheese used for this dish simply must be fresh queso blanco. This soft, non-aged white cheese also has its roots on the Iberian Peninsula, but has been wholeheartedly adopted throughout the Americas. Queso blanco is remarkably easy to make; if you’ve never given it a try, you really must. The caveat here is that ultra-pasteurized milk simply will not produce good cheese. You need something fresh and as local as possible – Since there’s no aging involved, and no culture added, this cheese will directly reflect the milk you make it from, (although you certainly can add herbs, veggies, etc if you like). While the ability to press this cheese will make a more consistent product, you really don’t need a dedicated press. Here’s how it’s done. Here again, you can find fresh queso blanco at many grocery stores these days, too.

You’ll need;
Non-reactive stock pot,
Steel mixing spoon,
Instant read thermometer,
Metal colander
Decent cheesecloth

Queso Blanco
1/2 gallon fresh whole milk, (no ultra-pasteurized)
6 teaspoons Live Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
Salt to taste

In a stock pot over medium low heat, add the milk.
Stir occasionally and monitor temperature until milk reaches 185° F, about 10 minutes or so.
Reduce heat to low and add 2 teaspoons of vinegar, and stir gently. You will see curds begin to separate from the whey; going forward, stir very gently – The curds retain moisture, which you want, so stir them, don’t batter them.
After a minute or so add 2 more teaspoons of vinegar and stir.
Repeat with the last 2 teaspoons of vinegar after another minute or two.
Let the curds and whey rest for five minutes.
Once you’ve got well formed curds, continue to stir gently to keep the curds from clumping, (called matting in the cheese making parlance)
Spread cheesecloth over your colander. If you’d like to make ricotta with the whey, put the colander inside a mixing bowl; if not you can discard it.
Gently pour the curds into the lined colander. Add salt,(and any herbs or veggies), and mix gently by hand.
You can now hang the cheese in the cloth for 10 to 20 minutes if you prefer a dryer cheese. If not, (and thereafter if you do), it’s time to press the cheese. I’ve got a press, so that’s what I use; I realize 99% of y’all don’t have one, so here’s what you do:

Pressing the queso
Return the cloth wrapped cheese to the colander. Place a flat plate small enough to fit well within the colander on top of the cheese. Place a stock pot on top of the plate. Water weights 8 pounds a gallon. Start with one gallon of water and let the cheese sit for 20 minutes. Add 2 more gallons of water and continue pressing for 2 hours.
Remove cheese from cloth, wrap it in waxed paper and refrigerate until ready to use. Fresh queso will last for 3 to 4 days refrigerated.

And finally, the rellenos.

Chiles Rellenos de Oaxaca for 4, (or a hungry two, or leftovers…)
4 Poblano Chiles
1/2 Pound Chorizo
1/2 Pound Queso Blanco
1 14.5 ounce can Tomatoes
1/4 Cup diced Sweet Onion
2 tablespoons minced, toasted almonds
2 cloves minced Garlic
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Cinnamon
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to season
Olive Oil
Canola Oil or Lard for frying

For the Batter
4 Egg Whites
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
Pinch Sea Salt
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour for dredging

To a sauté pan over medium heat, add chorizo and cook until lightly browned and no pink shows.
Add minced almonds and continue cooking until they’re lightly toasted.
Remove chorizo blend from pan into a small bowl.
Add diced queso to chorizo/almond mix, and incorporate. Set aside.

queso-chorizo blend
Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauté pan and scrape all the little chorizo remnants loose.
Add onions and sauté until they start to turn translucent.
Add garlic and sauté until raw garlic smell dissipates.
Add tomatoes to sauté pan and heat through, stirring to incorporate, until sauce starts to simmer.
Add cinnamon, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and stir occasionally.
Heat oven to Broil and place a rack on a high setting.
Place chiles on a baking sheet and broil until the skins begin to blister, turning steadily to get all sides evenly seared.
Remove chiles from oven and set onto a plate to cool.
Set oven to bake at 300° F and set a rack to a middle position.
When chiles are cooled enough to handle, carefully cut the stem and seed cluster free from each chile and discard.
Carefully stuff each chile with equal volumes of the chorizo/queso mixture. Set stuffed chiles on a plate.

Rellenos ready to stuff
Add 1/2 cup oil or lard to a frying pan over medium high heat to 350° F.
Set 1/2 cup of flour onto a plate or shallow dish for dredging.
Beat egg whites, with a pinch of salt added, to a stiff peak, then add a tablespoon of flour and beat to incorporate.
Carefully roll chiles in flour, one at a time, then roll them through the egg whites to coat.
Carefully place chiles in hot oil and fry until golden brown, turning carefully onto each side, about 3 to 4 minutes total.
Carefully place chiles on a baking sheet and slide that into the oven. Bake chiles for 15 minutes at 300° F.
To serve, ladle a generous dose of tomato sauce into a bowl, and add a relleno to each.

Chiles rellenos de Oaxaca
Top with sour cream and fresh chopped cilantro.
I’m certainly not going to tell you how to eat your dinner, but I will say this – The real joy of this dish is to break up the relleno in the tomato sauce until you’ve got an even, kind of chili-like consistency – Doing that lets all the ingredients blend together in each bite – And it is amazing, indeed.

Cooking at the Gathering

So, a couple weeks ago, I didn’t post, because, as luck and joy would have it, I was 1600 miles from home, at my other home for a few precious days. Formally known as The Luthier Community Gathering, this is an annual event held in the north woods of Minnesota. Hosted by Grant Goltz and Christy Hohman at their incredibly eclectic and homey spread, this is several days of companionship, renewed and new friendships, music, incredible house made beer and ale, and of course, food.   

Over the years, I’ve become the official Chef de Gathering, and it is a joy of joys to do. Over the three days of the main event, we feed somewhere around 30 to 40 folks for dinner, and maybe 12 to 20 for breakfasts and lunches. While some folks bring a little of this and a little of that, Chris and I provide the mainstays, (and usually Monica, who couldn’t make the trip this year due to a new job). And rank has its privilege – I get my own incredibly cozy Chef apartment, and an incredible kitchen to work from.


 For such a big crowd, the process is incredibly easy. At some point, we’ll touch base and decide on theme, main ingredients, etc – it rarely takes more than a couple minutes. I say, “Hey Chris, what are we gonna build?” She fires off some options, inspiration takes hold, and off we go. 

 The real joy comes not only from feeding good friends in a great kitchen, but in the gathering of ingredients. Grant and Christy run a Community Supported Agriculture, (CSA), operation on their spread, so the variety and scope of produce is truly stunning, as you can see.  So, picking ingredients means just that; heading out on the trail with basket in hand, and coming back with the bounty. 

  
  
 This year marked the first truly amazing mushroom harvest, from logs inoculated and set up last season – Shiitakes, an almost embarrassing wealth of gorgeous, just picked beauties – I put them in everything I could think of, (and I did say ‘almost’).

  

  
Our mutual friends, John and Lissa Sumption, have a working CSA close by, (King’s Gardens), so literally anything we don’t have right on hand can be had with a phone call. During my visit, Mark, the very talented local butcher, stopped by and dropped off some goodies, for which he took produce in barter. The results speak for themselves.  

  
 Our recent piece on apples contains several of the recipes we did this year. Here’s the recipe for smoked Guacamole – It’s become a must-do for the event ever since we debuted it seven or eight years ago.


The Annual Gathering is open to any and all who love music, good friends, and good food. Here’s a video and a song that pretty well sums up the vibe. It’s held in August every year. This year, a dear friend from my wildfire fighting days, Nancy Swenson, made the trip out – First time we’d seen each other in thirty four years!

¡Ceviche!

Ours pals Chris and Grant hail from northern Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, most of which have great fishing. Among the various options to go after, panfish are a personal favorite. They’re fun, feisty, and you can harvest a very decent catch relatively guilt free, ’cause those suckers breed like there’s no tomorrow.

But wait a minute, you ask, what are panfish anyway? Great question! The term has some wiggle room is the broadest answer; panfish mean different things to different regions and fishers. Some folks will tell you it means any species that, fully grown, fit well in the ol’ cast iron frying pan, while others claim it’s because the fish themselves are frying pan shaped. I’ve heard Crappie, Blue Gills, Sunfish, Perch, Pumpkin Seeds, and Small Mouth Bass all referred to as pan fish. To me, any of these small, plentiful species qualify for the term.

Anyway, I digress; back to why Chris got in touch. She wrote, “We caught lots of Crappies. The fillets are thin and the flesh is quite soft, but they’re nice and sweet. Any tips?”

Sure do; while a simple butter poach is lovely, or a sauté in olive oil, lemon, and dill, sometimes it’s fun to go a bit farther afield and try something new. Ceviche is the ticket. This favorite of the coastal Americas derives from an Incan dish of fish cured with salt and chiles, and marinated in passion fruit juice. The modern incarnation in its simplest form is fresh, raw fish cured in citrus juices and seasoned with chiles. Ceviche is fabulous with any white fleshed fish, and that certainly includes the pan varieties. 

If you’ve never tried making or eating ceviche and are maybe a bit squeamish about it, don’t feel bad, so was Chris; she wrote, “Have never had anything like that before, so I was wary. Not anymore! I knew you wouldn’t steer me wrong!” (That’s my kinda endorsement). 

Nonetheless, what makes folks nervous is the lack of cooking involved in making ceviche. Technically speaking, cooking requires heat, so ceviche isn’t cooked, but it’s not raw either; it’s fish cured in a citric acid bath. Fact is, both processes initiate a chemical reaction called denaturation, which alters the proteins in the fish chemically and physically. The end result of either method is fish that becomes firm to the touch, opaque to the eye, and a ‘cooked’ taste.

So, how long should fish be marinated in citrus juices in order for denaturation to take place? That depends on the variety of fish you use, and how well you like your fish cured. Just a few minutes in citrus juices and your fish will start to go opaque, though the interior will still look raw and the flesh won’t have firmed up yet. Just as with cooking, you can marinate too long, leading to a tough texture and an overpowering citrus note. The key to even, dependable results is to always butcher your fish down to roughly bite sized pieces. Doing so increases the fish’s surface area and makes it easier for the citric acid to do its thing. Generally, the flakier and softer the fish, the faster it will cure in citrus. Watching for the complete opaque appearance and firm feel you expect when you cook fish will give you good results.

The freshness of the fish you choose to marinate is a critical consideration, because citric acid curing doesn’t kill bacteria the way cooking does. If you’ve got any concern about this, it’s best to freeze your fillets at or below -4° F for a good week prior to making ceviche. That will kill potential parasites like tapeworms and roundworms. Alternatively, you can do a quick blanch with your fish, dropping the fillets into boiling water for a full minute, then immediately plunging them into ice water to stop the cooking process, before you marinate it. This quick shock also helps softer fleshed fish maintain a firmer texture when cured.

There’s a world of variety waiting for you to explore once you wade in. Just varying the citrus creates truly unique dishes, so try lemon, lime, blood orange, grapefruit, or yuzu. Same goes with the chiles; from light heat and fruity to truly fiery, each one creates a different finish. A touch of a varietal vinegar does the same thing. A bit of mango in your finished mix beautifully compliments the sweetness of the fish, and on and on.

Here’s the one I did up for Chris; It’s a pretty classic swing at the dish, and super easy to make

1 Pound Fish
6-8 Limes
2 medium varietal Tomatoes
3-4 Green Onions (Sweet Onion is fine as a sub)
1 stalk Celery
1-2 Jalapeño Chiles (Again, you can vary the variety as you like)
1/2 Cup fresh Cilantro

Cut fillets into bite size pieces. 

Place fish in a non-reactive bowl and cover completely with lime juice.

Refrigerate covered for 6-8 hours, until the fish has turned completely opaque.

When the fish is ready, fine dice all the remaining veggies and mix well, including the olive oil.

Discard the marinating juice from the fish.

Add the juice from 2 fresh limes and the cured fish to the mix and toss gently.

Serve with fresh tortillas, crema, guac, and ice cold beer!

 

Here’s Chris’ gorgeous plate, made with Golden Jubilee heirloom tomatoes.

Catfish? yeah, catfish!

I’m a goin’ fishin’…

Catfish kinda piss me off fishing-wise. I’ll do the bobber thing and all, but when those big suckers hit, they just kinda tug, ya know? I’d like a little more action, personally. That’s probably because once, and once only when fishing for bass, one hit my fly and took me for a ride that was better than the large mouth I was after. He was 6 pounds and fought like a real cat – why can’t they all do that?

Anyway catfish is one of those things people either like or they don’t, like oysters or single malt scotch. I think it’s the gamy flavor that does it. There’s not a lot about the fundamentals of that taste you can alter, because they’re bottom feeders, and as such, wild or farmed, they taste like they do. Here are a couple recipes, one for purists, and one for the not-so-sure.

Love Catfish? Then this ones for you. All too often, catfish is overloaded with breading and heavy flavors that disguise the fish. Strip all that away and try this; the butter poach, fresh citrus and light herbs will complement rather than cover.

4 Catfish fillets
1 fresh Lemon
3 Tablespoons Butter
1 Tablespoon dry white Wine
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
A few twists fresh ground Pepper
A shake or two Tabasco Sauce

Preheat oven to 200° F

Heat a cast iron skillet large enough to handle all 4 fillets over medium flame.

Cut lemon in half, then cut half into 1/8 pieces for the table. Zest and juice the other half and set aside.

Melt butter in skillet; watch the butter closely. As soon as it finishes foaming, put the fillets into the pan.

Tilt the pan enough to make the butter pool; with a spoon, ladle hot butter over the fillets repeatedly, as the butter begins to brown. Continue ladling evenly over all the fillets until the butter is quite brown, but don’t let it start to burn. This poaching process will take about 4-5 minutes.

Transfer the fillets to an ovenproof platter and slip that into the oven. Turn the oven off and keep the door closed.

Return the skillet to a medium-low flame. Add the white wine, lemon zest and juice, salt, pepper, and. Tabasco. Whisk with a fork to incorporate. When all is well blended, add one more tablespoon butter, blend that and heat through, then remove the skillet from the heat.

Serve a fillet or two each, as you see fit. Drizzle each fillet with the pan sauce. Serve promptly with some more of that dry white wine, fresh crusty bread, and a nice green salad.

 

Not so sure you love catfish? Try this zippy cornmeal fried version. Between the buttermilk soak, crunchy light coating and the house made rémoulade, you’ll be hooked for sure.

4 Catfish fillets
1/2 Cup fine ground Yellow Cornmeal
1/2 Cup Wondra Flour
1-2 teaspoons flaked Tabasco Chile, (crushed cayenne chile is OK, but not as fruity)
1 teaspoon sweet smoked Paprika
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground Pepper
2-3 Cups Vegetable oil for frying
1 fresh Lemon

Place oil in a 10″ to 12″ cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, with a candy or heat-proof thermometer handy.

Preheat oven to 200° F; fit a wire cooling rack within a baking sheet lined with paper towels and have that ready beside your skillet.

In a mixing bowl, add the cornmeal, flour, chile, paprika, salt, and pepper in a shallow dish and combine thoroughly.

Cut fillets in half lengthwise, so you’ve got 8 pieces total. Pat each half fillet dry with a clean paper towel.

Toss each fillet one by one into the coating mix, making sure they’re evenly and thoroughly covered. Tap each fillet off on the edge of the bowl to remove excess coating.

Check your oil temp; when you’ve got 350° F, adjust your heat to maintain that.

Fry fillets in twos, so that the oil doesn’t lose temperature to too much fish being introduced. Fry each side for about 2-3 minutes until golden brown, flipping once.

Use a slotted spoon or tongs to transfer finished fillets to the wire rack. Sprinkle each lightly with a but more sea salt. Place in the oven to stay hot until all your fillets are done.

Serve piping hot with lemon wedges, rémoulade, and a cold, local Extra Special Bitter Ale.

 

House Made Rémoulade

Rémoulade is, at heart, a mayonnaise with more goodies added to the mix. This classic sauce was created in France, but it’s been adopted and adapted to New Orleans cookery in many forms. Our take has a little sweet and a little heat and goes perfectly with cornmeal crusted catfish. If you’ve never made rémoulade at home, it’s time to try; it’s one of those little secrets that separates the pros from the wanna bees, and it’s really pretty easy to do. Here’s how.

PRODUCTION NOTES:
1. Get the freshest eggs you can when making mayo or rémoulade at home. This is an emulsion, which depends on the ability of the proteins in the egg yolks to stretch and encompass the oil; old eggs just don’t have the elasticity you need for this dish.
2. Have all your ingredients at room temperature before you start; that’ll allow the primary ingredients of this emulsion to mesh readily.
3. While you can make mayo or rémoulade with olive oil, the stronger flavor isn’t always complimentary; a light vegetable oil like canola will better allow the herbs and spices to shine in this recipe.

1 Cup Vegetable Oil
2 fresh, large Egg Yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 fresh Lemon
1 teaspoon Tabasco Sauce
1 Jalapeño Chile
1 small sweet Onion
2 teaspoons Capers
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground Grains of Paradise

Zest and juice one half of the lemon.

Top, core, seed, and mince the jalapeño.

Mince 1 packed tablespoon of the onion.

Mince the capers.

Those ingredients can all be combine and set aside at this point.

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks and the Dijon mustard; whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Continue whisking and slowly add the oil by pouring a very thin stream into the middle of the yolk and mustard blend. Watch the mixture, and pour slowly enough that the oil is constantly fusing with the yolk and mustard blend. Those proteins in the egg yolk, uncoiled by your whisking, are wrapping around air bubbles and the oil, allowing all of that to blend and remain combined. You’ll progress from a little yolk and mustard to a thicker, deeper pool of liquid with that mayo consistency you know so well.

Once all of the oil has been incorporated, whisk in the lemon juice and zest, Tabasco, salt and grains of paradise, until thoroughly combined.

Add the onion, jalapeño, and capers and blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust the seasoning with additional salt and grains of paradise as needed.

Transfer the rémoulade to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the flavors to marry. Rémoulade will keep refrigerated in that airtight container for 2 or 3 days.