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.
Do have cookbooks in your house? Do you use ‘em, and if so, how do you do that? Weird questions? I don’t think so, really – it’s a thing that maybe we should discuss more. It’s an opportunity for me to share some love I don’t think I’ve really every fleshed out before.
First off, have you read any cookbooks, cover to cover, page burner style? If not, I suggest you’ve not yet found the great ones – James Beard’s American Cookery, Claudia Rosen’s Book of Jewish Food, Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok, Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican, Shizuoka Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Food of Sichuan, Lihn Nguyen’s Lemongrass Ginger & Mint, Claudia Rosen’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain, Georgia Friedman’s Cooking South of the Clouds, Grace Young’s Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, Jeffrey Weiss’ Charcuteria, Carolyn Phillips’ All Under Heaven, Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee, Felicia Campbell’s Food of Oman. Every single book in that list will captivate you – They’re meant to be consumed like the amazing cuisines and techniques they lovingly describe.
Others are more for reference, like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Page & Dornenberg’s Flavor Bible, Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise, Russell Van Kraayenburg’s Making Dough, Kenji Alt-Lopez’s The Food Lab, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, Josh & Jessica Applestone’s Butchers Guide to Well Raised Meat, Ruhlman’s Ratios, Ruhlman and Polson’s Charcuterie, Larousse Gastronomique, The Escoffier Cookbook – These provide a solid grounding in the science, technique, and history behind what we do in the kitchen – you’ll go back to those again and again over the years.
Celebrity cookbooks are, by and large coffee table stuff meant to impress and delight the eye, though there are notable exceptions. I should clarify that the pablum put out by TV or social media created people who’ve never worked a shift in a kitchen in their lives, and who generally couldn’t cook their way out of a paper bag on their own are not even considered herein – those folks and their output should be roundly ignored.
Stuff written by and with chefs who really can cook is another matter. While the books they offer tend to be part of their brand as much as anything, don’t discount the fact that most of those folks have put in their time and got where they got because they know their stuff. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook was written with Ruhlman, so it’s done well without a doubt, and that Chef wants to share what he knows and loves. Bourdain was by his own admission a journeyman Chef, but he was CIA trained and steeped in French country food, and his Les Halles cookbook is a joy. Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin book is stunningly good, and his 32 Yokes memoir is a delight.
Memoirs from real Chefs are wonderful genre. If you’ve never read Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’ s raucous tell all that brought him to fame, you must do so. Bill Bruford’s Heat, Amy Thielen’s Give a Girl a Knife, Bob Spitz’ Dearie, Anya Von Bremsen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, James Beards Delights and Prejudices, Jacque Pepin’s The Apprentice, Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood Bones and Butter, and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, just to name a very few – There are stunning gems in this genre, and delightful tales.
Anyway, those cookbooks you got – I asked, ‘what do you do with them?’ It’s a serious question to wrap up this ramble. If, gods forbid, you’re just copying a recipe now and again, you’re frankly wasting the true magic of this genre. In a nutshell, that magic is this – If you read a cookbook, really read it – study it, work with, take some notes about what you really liked – let’s say one of Grace Young’s stellar offerings, like Breath of a Wok, then you’ll reap some of the passion and energy she put into that work. More to the point, one day out of the blue, you’ll think ‘I’m gonna do a stir fry,’ and before you know it, you’ll be pulling the core ingredients for that – veggies, herbs, sauce ingredients, without much of a thought. When that happens, then you’re getting what you should out of that wonderful book – and somewhere, a Chef-Author smiles.
I’ve often said that I’d write about food and cooking even if nobody read it. While that’s true, people do read what I write, and then they go onto make what I’ve written about. Some faithfully reproduce my recipes, and some, be still my heart, go on to make them their own – that seriously floats my boat.
To those why find mistakes and point them out to me, thank you – I’m my own editor, and sometimes I miss – I genuinely appreciate the help!
So here’s to the folks who make my stuff and let me know – especially during these trying times, y’all make me very happy indeed.
If you’ve cooked from this site, show your work, please! If you find something that works better or you like more, share that too.
Nancy Swenson did up Chicken ala Diane, prompting her Hubs, Steve to say, ‘you can make that again!’
Jenny Lynn Talton-Proulx rain with the Clafoutis et Flaugnarde post and turned out her own amazing blueberry version – Here’s what she had to say about it – “Today’s flaugnarde. Local fresh-picked blueberries. Changed the recipe slightly: Used 4 cups of blueberries, 1/2 cup sugar, put cast iron pan in oven to pre-heat while I pulled together the ingredients. When ready to assemble, pulled pan out and added 2 T butter and a layer of organic corn meal, then the layer of chopped pecans, the blueberries, and the custard mix. Put in oven for 25 minutes. Switched around and baked for another 25. Let it cool completely then ran a knife around the perimeter onto a plate. Then flipped it right side up onto another plate and dusted with powdered sugar. It is so freaking good and Mario loves it. Made a stabilized whipped cream to top it all off!”
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.
Back in June, 2017, Sotirios ‘Sam’ Panopoulos passed away in London, Ontario, Canada. While you’ve likely never heard of Sam, you know him well through his iconic dish, the Hawaiian Pizza – That creation, loved or reviled, came from the mind of a 28 year old Greek immigrant to Canada. I’m here to declare, formally, that I love Hawaiian pizza – and maybe you should too.
Sam and a couple of brothers owned the Satellite restaurant in Chatham, Ontario, due east across Lake Saint Clair from Detroit. It was the early 60’s, so a place called the Satellite was very fashion forward, indeed. They served a mishmash of stuff, from burgers to Chinese food made by a Chinese chef. He later noted that it was the Chinese penchant for blending elements of the five major tastes in a dish that got him thinking about inventing a pizza – He’d enjoyed eating that in Italy and the US, and thought he might be able to come up with something original. He was right.
Today’s version of the Hawaiian pizza is not what Sam started with. His shining contribution was the pineapple – Canned Dole pineapple, which begat the Hawaiian thing. He later recalled that, in Canada at that time, “People only put on mushroom, bacon and pepperoni, that’s all. I had pineapple in the restaurant and I put some on, and I shared with some customers and they liked it. And we started serving it that way. For a long time, we were the only ones serving it.”
Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Get the mix right, and things can be delightful. What Sam had done was add a tacitly sweet note to what was, as he noted, a pretty heavy mix. Yet pineapple did more than that – It added acid, which cut the fatty mix of cheese and meat, and offered a minor sour note as well. It may seem wrong, but I think it was brilliant, and the explosion of that now legendary combo on the world of pizza would seem to support that.
Now, the Hawaiian is almost always tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, and pineapple. It is surprising to me that seemingly equal faction either love the combination or loath it. The President of Iceland recently denounced it, (albeit tongue in cheek), prompting Canadian PM Trudeau to quip, “I have a pineapple. I have a pizza. And I stand behind this delicious Southwestern Ontario creation.” Many chefs have vilified the thing, from Gordon Ramsay To Tony Bourdain, sometimes prompting outraged defenses in response from yet other chefs. Somewhere in print, the haters actually invoked Godwin’s Law, and declared that those who like Hawaiian pizza are ‘worse than hitler.’
What is it about pineapple on pizza that’s so polarizing? Purists cite Neapolitan roots and flatly state that pineapple has no place there – I imagine these folks have kittens over quite a few other ingredients as well. Sweet notes in a pizza certainly aren’t taboo – Hell, that’s what tomatoes do, for cryin’ out loud – and pineapple has been eaten in Italy for a long, long time. In the states, it’s a top ten fruit, so it’s not broadly disliked here either. Google the first sentence of this paragraph and you get a whole raft of discussions and levels of intensity – It’s interesting, but all that stuff doesn’t necessarily answer the question.
The whole thing really seems to boil down to two arguments – either that pineapple just doesn’t belong on pizza, or that it just doesn’t taste good – To both, I call bullshit. If you like pineapple, and want to use it, do so. If you’re running a pizzeria that swears eternal fealty to all the arcane rules of the game, then by all means, don’t. If you don’t like the taste, no matter what, then don’t eat it – it’s that simple. But if you’re cooking at home, and you want to, then to paraphrase Alton Brown, by God, have pineapple.
As for the taste thing, fact is, this is often enough true. A poorly made pizza isn’t likely to taste good at all – but that’s easily remedied. Let’s face it, a notable chunk of commercial pizza from big name chains and the stuff at the grocery store is crap – They’re not generally made with love and care, and you get what you pay for. Change that, and it’s delicious.
Tony Bourdain infamously had nothing good to say about Hawaiian pizza, (most of it highly profane, I might add). Yet he was forced to swallow his smartass comments when, in Rome, he ran into Gabriele Bonci of Pizzarium. Chef Bonci does pizza right – great dough, top notch ingredients, just a few things combined on each slice. Bourdain made the Hawaiian crack, and Bonci immediately said ‘No, is good,’ and made some. They both agreed it was good, but not great. Then Bonci disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a sauté of onion and hot peppers added, and bingo – Even Tony had to admit it rocked.
That harkens all the way back to what Sam Panopoulos said about first offering pineapple on pizza – It was added to whatever you liked. It’s all about balance, and what Sam gleaned from Chinese food was a well balanced thing. Love it or hate it, the fact that it flourishes decades after its inception says it’s true.
So, if you’re not from the hater camp, try it done right. Fresh pineapple is always best, but truth? Canned will work fine if you blend and cook it well. You don’t need to use fancy ham, but you sure can if you want, or sub bacon, or whatever porky deliciousness you prefer. Make or buy great dough, sauce, and use as much fresh stuff as you’ve got for toppings. What you see in the images herein was made with fresh dough, tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeños, and basil out of our garden, and locally made smoked scamorza cheese. Use different chiles if you like, red onion, maybe a few capers for a bitter note – experiment, have fun, and surrender to Sam.
One interesting side note – Sam died one year to the day before Bourdain took his own life in France.
Let’s just address the elephant in the room, right off the bat – Beans are not exactly what one would call sexy food, right? Well, were we talking about the decidedly pedestrian offerings we’re all too used to seeing out there, I’d agree. Yet, when you consider what a little outfit based in California has been quietly doing for beans lately, the answer is a resounding, yes, they are – Because Rancho Gordo is making beans very sexy indeed.
Back about a decade or so, I discovered Rancho Gordo and some truly amazing beans. No, seriously – Truly amazing beans. We’re talking the kind of beans that you try a couple of after they’re just done cooking, and then you raise an eyebrow, and then you try more, all the while thinking, ‘damn! Those are outstanding!’ – Beans that good. Then I kinda forgot about them, for who knows what reason, until just recently, when we were reunited. In the meantime, Steve Sando and the Rancho crew had gone from harvesting a few thousand pounds a year to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and many, many more varieties. What John Bunker has done for apples in Maine, Sando is doing for beans. NOTE: When I asked Steve what their current production was, he wrote, “A lot!We’re in the middle of planning and we’re not sure where we’ll land.”
Sando wasn’t an agricultural expert, by any sense of the words, when he started this endeavor. He’d been, in fact, a web designer, DJ, and clothing wholesaler who happened to like to cook. He also lived in Napa, one of the lushest areas for food and wine one could wish for. Yet when he headed out one day in search of good tomatoes, he found… Crap. Nada – Nasty, hard, hothouse tomatoes from Holland were the best thing in sight. Since he was already an accomplished Jack of All Trades, he decided to take a swing at growing heirloom tomatoes and other veggies he’d like to cook with. Eventually, that lead to beans, and therein was made a match in culinary Heaven. Sando and crew have, in fifteen years or so, gone from humble origins to major stardom in the foodie world, with luminaries like Thomas Keller using Rancho Gordo beans in his restaurants, and an heirloom variety named after Marcella Hazan.
If you haven’t read the recent New Yorker piece on Sando and Rancho, do. It’s a wonderful vignette of the work they do, searching out new-to-us but old bean varieties, and bringing them to the rest of us. As Rancho Gordo grows, so does the search – That has spread throughout the Americas, from modest beginnings in California, through Mexico, and in to South America, (with inroads to Europe, including that Marcella bean, which naturally has Italian roots.) Their Rancho Gordo Xoxoc Project teams them up with a very fine Mexican outfit, to bring stunningly good heirloom Mexican beans to the markets up here in Gringolandia.
Oh, those beans! Seriously! We’re not talking flaccid plastic bags full of dullness – we’re talking rock stars, peacocks, a veritable rainbow of delights for the eye and stomach. Go to the Heirloom Bean Page on Rancho Gordo’s website and you’ll see, currently, thirty varieties that shine and sparkle. There’s no dullness here – There are glowing tones of red, black, white, cream, and purple – Shining solids, stripes, and blends. Let me assure you that these gems look every bit as good in person, even after they’re cooked.
And cook them you must, my friends. Yes, although I sound like a broken record, they are better than ‘that good.’ That’s important for a couple of reasons. First off, meatless meals are a thing we need to do more often. The world grows smaller as we continue to overpopulate it. Meat takes a hell of a lot of energy to produce, rather ridiculous amounts, truth be told. When we consider how and what and who produces food these days, things get grimmer yet. Up through most American history, well over 50% of the people lived in rural areas and were involved, in some degree, with farming and producing food. That figure is now around 1%, and ya can’t get a hell of a lot lower than that. Secondly, as agricultural area diminishes, or is generally overrun by huge corporate farming, diversity suffers foremost – That’s the reason why a visit to your local grocery finds those boring bags of industrial beans. Just as apples have rebounded, (leading to far greater availability of what were niche varieties), beans need to make that leap too, right into our gardens.
Beans are members of the legume family, which includes other such notables as peas, clover, and the lovely lupines that Monica planted out in front of our new digs this spring. Legumes have a great trick, a symbiosis with rhizobia, a common bacteria that are capable of fixing nitrogen, so long as they have a suitable host – Legumes provide that, so rhizobia settle into the plant’s root nodes and good things result. Instead of depleting soil, they enrich it. Fact is, planting beans or field peas at the end of your garden’s annual sojourn, (AKA, late fall), will not only help stabilize soils during the wet months, it’ll provide your next round of crops with a decent nitrogen fix, if you cut them down before they flower in the spring.
And for the record, Rancho Gordo not only approves of, but encourages home cultivation – Right there at the top of the Heirloom Bean Page, it reads, ‘Heirloom Beans are open-pollinated seeds that can be planted and you’ll get the exact same bean. They tend to have a lower yield and can be much more difficult to grow but the pay off is in the unique flavors and textures that you don’t find with bland commodity beans.’ Hey, everybody needs to start somewhere, yeah? Why not start with the best? RG doesn’t stop there, by the way – Sando wrote, The Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, which’ll provide all the knowledge you need – Just add horsepower.
Then there are the nutritional considerations. Beans provide ample calories in a high protein, low fat package, with a low glycemic index, that includes complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and a generous sprinkling of vitamins and minerals. The USDA recommends we eat 3 cups of legumes a week as part of a healthy diet, and beans ought to be your star player in that endeavor. Now granted, all of that ain’t worth a Hill of beans if you don’t like the taste of ‘em. If what you’ve been exposed to is the seemingly endless world of canned and highly processed, or dried, low quality crap, who can blame you? Trust me when I say that Rancho Gordo is here to save the day.
As I mentioned, these beans are so far above the norm, they’re downright stratospheric. Go online, and look up threads of folks discussing cooking and eating these little beasties – you’ll read, repeatedly, something to the effect of ‘I was snacking on them so much, I was worried I wouldn’t have enough left for the dish I’d intended to make.’ They’re not joking. The first time I cooked some since my reintroduction, I experienced exactly that. Those were Vaqueros, by the way, gorgeous little black and white beauties that make amazing chili, (and are perfect for the Pacific Northwest – Their nickname is Orca Beans). Damn near anything and everything you want to eat with them or cook them into will be amazing, and just like that, your bean aversion is alleviated.
And the labels, well, those are just a fun, campy kick in the ass, far as I’m concerned. Sando was a web designer, you’ll recall, and he certainly does have an eye for catchy. They’re instantly recognizable, and downright appealing, and yeah, that kinda stuff does matter. Remember those dull, boring bags at the store? Well, screw that – These are as fun to look as they are to eat.
Alright, so whataya make with these things, anyway? Well, as I alluded to above, the sky’s the limit. From just beans, to salads, dips, and spreads. Soups, stews, and chili, to cassoulet, pasta y fagioli, and chakalaka, everything you make, from super simple to legendary, will be outstanding. For my mind, the simpler you start with, the better. Let the beans speak to before you layer them into other stuff. I’m not kidding. Eating these with an extraordinarily light seasoning hand will show you exactly what I’m gushing about. Sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of very good olive oil, maybe a chiffenade of a single, fresh basil leaf – nothing more – Yes, they have that much flavor and character. Do that, and on the second round, you’ll know exactly what each one will shone at when you really turn it loose. Your second wave might be a lovely bean and wild rice salad for something cold, or red beans and rice for a hot dish. After that, dive into the longer, slower stuff.
Now, when you want to genuinely layer up, and make something that will show what Rancho Gordo beans can really do, I’ll offer this recipe up, the very first elaborate one I made after RGB’s and I got reacquainted. I did it in an Instant Pot, (AKA, the IP, a truly spectacular electric, programmable pressure cooker, if you’re not familiar with them.)I’ll recommend using one, because the primary benefit of an Instant Pot can be summed up as follows – The entire process can be done in that appliance, and the total cooking time is only 18 minutes, and that includes pre-cooking the beans, yet the finished dish will taste like you slaved away all day – Capiche? If you don’t have an IP, you can soak, parboil, or bake the beans first, (Type ‘Beans’ into the search box here and you’ll get a bunch of options in that regard), then you can slow cook them as you see fit.
1 Pound Rancho Gordo Vaquero Beans
1/4 Pound Pork (whatever version you’ve got on hand)
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Sweet Pepper, chopped
1/2 Cup Onion, chopped
1/4 Cup fresh Cilantro, chopped
1 to 3 fresh Serrano Chiles, cut into roughly 1/4” thick rings
1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
Garnish: Crema or sour cream, hot sauce, more cilantro, fresh lime, Pico de Gallo, and so on, si?
Add dry beans and 8 cups of water to the Instant Pot.
Set the IP to 8 minutes on Pressure and let ‘er rip.
I used precooked pork – Use whatever you’ve got, from ground, to whole, to bacon.
If your pork is uncooked, give it a quick sauté to just brown it and get rid of most of the pink. When that’s done, transfer it to a small bowl and let it hang out while you continue. NOTE: If you’ve got a fatty cut of pork, trim the lion’s share and reserve it – You’ll use it shortly.
After the pressure cycle is completed, allow the pot to stay on Keep Warm mode for 10 minutes, then carefully release the remaining pressure on the IP. Use a towel or hot pads to grab the cooking vessel, then drain the beans through a colander – It’s always a good idea to save the pot liquor, it’ll be great for soups and stews down the line, and it freezes well.
Return the cooking vessel to the IP and set it to sauté.
When the IP is heated, add the reserved pork fat, (a tablespoon of avocado oil will do if you don’t have fat).
Allow the fat to melt (or the oil to heat through), then add the onion, sweet pepper, garlic, and chiles, and sauté, stirring lightly, until the onions start to turn translucent.
Add the chicken stock, pork, beans, cilantro, and seasoning to the IP and lock the cover back down.
Set the IP for 10 minutes at Pressure and let it go.
When the pressure cycle is complete, press Cancel, and let the IP’s pressure bleed off through ‘Natural Release’ – It’ll be about 20-25 minutes before you can unlock the cover.
Give beans a quick stir, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired.
Serve with whatever accoutrements you desire, albeit you’ll not really need anything else…
NOTE: Because I always get asked, I always point out the following – No, I do not get any sort of endorsement deal/perks/freebies from anyone or anything I review or recommend. I bought my Instant Pot same as you, as I do my Rancho Gordo beans and other goodies, (and oh boy, do they have other goodies – Go to the site and poke around, for cryin’ out loud!)I recommend what I love, because I want to share it with y’all – It’s that simple.
The volume of my Rancho Gordo stash, (and no, that’s not all of it, gang…) should illustrate the fact that I love their stuff. If, when you get there, six bucks seems expensive for a pound of beans, believe me when I tell you, it’s not. You’ll get a couple of great meals from that bag, without having to add a lot of other expense – That’s not pricy, that’s well worth your money, and you’re helping maintain little growers all over the place, as well as genetic diversity – Both very good things.
I’ll also mention that I belong to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club, in which you get a big ol’ shipment 4 times a year for $40 a pop, which includes six bags of beans, plus another goody, (like red popcorn, hominy, or cacao, to name but a few, as well as free shipping for something else in that quarter, and a newsletter with great recipes. The club was closed at 1,000 members for quite a while, and then was recently expanded and reopened. If you really dig Beans, you’re a fool not to join. There’s also a FB group for the club, and there are truly spectacular recipes and dishes floating across that on a daily basis, including the incredible pizza bean dish.
Seriously, go check it out, and tell ‘em I sent y’all.
This week, it’s time for another special guest chef. One of the things I love about social media, when done right, is the meaningful and lasting relationships that can be formed. For me personally, some of my dearest and closest friends, members of my real family, were first met online. Now, we vacation with them every year, and I can’t imagine not having that in our lives. What we get from stuff like this blog, or food groups on FB, or any other decent source, can and should be genuine connections that grow and prosper, even when we live worlds apart. Here, as elsewhere, the six degrees of separation principle is very much in play – I became FB friends with Gloria Goodwin Raheja through our Soul Sister, Christy Hohman – They met at a house concert in Crosslake, Minnesota, which is just a bit southeast of where we conduct the annual Stringfest Gathering that y’all have seen posted here for many years now – Andy Cohen was playing, and we met him last year – at Stringfest. For the final degree, here’s Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.
Gloria is a Professor of Anthropology at the U of M, Twin Cities, from which she conducted many years of fieldwork and wrote extensively about rural northern India. For roughly the last decade, her research has been focused in Appalachia. Her front burner project is Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields, a book about music and the coming of industrial capitalism to the mountains.
Our online interaction is in keeping with many who haunt FB, namely what we’re cooking and what our pets are up to, (Her dog Harry, like our Bandito, is quite sure he is the de facto Head of Household, and strives mightily to train his humans on proper etiquette.) Like so many brilliant and driven people, Gloria loves to cook, and does so very well, indeed. She dabbles in Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, and Appalachian foods for people who like to eat, and she frequents the St. Paul Farmers Market, and other shops that offer local and ethically produced meats.
She has, of late, become a devotee of the incredibly popular kitchen tool, the instant cooker, (or multi-cooker). If you’re not familiar with this tool, then, well… I don’t know what to say – They’re ubiquitous in online cooking groups and sites. They are, fundamentally, programmable electronic pressure cookers. Instant Pot is a brand name, and hands down the most popular one out there. These things will pressure or slow cook, cook rice, sauté, steam, or warm, and advanced version add yoghurt making, cake baking, egg cooking, sous vide, and sterilizing to the menu.
While many a kitchen gadget gets bought or gifted and soon forgotten, these things seem to have serious legs. In a very authentic Vietnamese cooking forum I belong to, almost every home chef has and regularly uses an instant cooker. For dishes like Pho that normally take 24 to 48 hours to cook, an instant cooker can do the job in an hour or two – And believe me, if the folks on that site find the results not only acceptable, but preferable in many instances, there’s something to these cookers.
Regarding her Instant Pot, Gloria noted, “Well, we totally love ours, really. It’s so great for things like chili verde, ragus, and of course beans. Tonight we’re making black chickpeas with kale, Moroccan style. Chunks of lamb and pork turn out, well, divinely – I dislike having a lot of kitchen toys piling up, plus my counter space is quite limited, but I cleared a permanent space for it, after using it just once!” That’s a pretty solid endorsement, in my book.
Now, before we dive into that Chile Verde, let’s talk about beans, because this is another place where Gloria and I are much of a mind. When M and I lived down in Tejas, I became acquainted with Rancho Gordo, Steve Sando’s Napa, California based magnum opus of heirloom goodness, and specifically, with their heirloom beans – If you don’t know about them, y’all should. Steve took frustration with a lack of great local produce (while living in Napa, fer cryin’ out loud) from a gardening whim to a full blown conservation operation, and Rancho Gordo is the result. What Home roasting brought to coffee beans, Steve brought to heirloom beans. He writes, ‘All of my agricultural pursuits have been based on being someone who likes to cook but gets frustrated by the lack of ingredients, especially those that are native to the New World.’ What I learned living and cooking down south was a primal love for all things culinarily Mesoamerican, and frankly, no foodstuff speaks to that more clearly than beans do. Like tomatoes, beans were devastated by the green revolution, and it’s only through the tireless work of folks like Steve that we’re blessed with what was and what shall be, if we’re even halfway smart.
And now, on to Gloria’s Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde. What I love about this, and I mean dearly love, is what she has to say about the genesis of this recipe, because folks? If you’ve been here at all, you know my mantra – Here’s a recipe, try it, and then do what you like to it and make it yours – That’s exactly what she did.
She writes, ‘I got the idea for this dish from Coco Morante’s “The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook,” but I modified it quite a bit. For one thing, I made my own roasted tomatillo and poblano and serrano chile salsa instead of used store-bought salsa, and for another thing I used heirloom Ojo de Cabra beans instead of canned pinto beans.’
Remove papery husks from tomatillos, rinse well, and cut in half.
Rinse chiles and cilantro. Stem serranos and rough chop. Rough chop cilantro
On a foil lined baking sheet, arrange tomatillos cut side down, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.
Position an oven rack 5” to 6” under your broiler. Broil for 5-7 minutes, turning evenly, until tomatillos are lightly blackened.
Remove from oven, set aside to cool.
Arrange poblanos on a foil-lined pan, place them under a broiler until blackened all around.
Transfer poblanos to a a paper bag with the top folded closed. This allows the cooling chiles to steep in their own steam as they cool, which adds a bit to their flavor, and helps loosen the skins – You can also do this in a baking dish or casserole with a tight fitting lid.
When the poblano are cool enough to handle, remove the skin, stem, and deseed.
Skin the roasted garlic.
Add all ingredients to a food processor or blender, and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and evenly mixed.
Transfer to a mixing bowl or glass jar.
For the beans.
1 Lb Eye of the Goat Beans (Yes, use what you’ve got, but honestly – Try these!)
8 Cups Water
3 cloves Garlic, trimmed and peeled
2 Bay Leaves
2 tsps Sea Salt
Gloria cooked her unsoaked beans in an Instant Pot, with all ingredients shown, for about thirty minutes, and used three cups of the cooked beans for this recipe.
If you don’t have an instant pot, the oven method works great and is pretty speedy to boot.
Set a rack in a middle position and preheat oven to 325° F.
Rinse beans in a single mesh strainer or colander, checking for debris.
Add beans, garlic, bay, and salt to a 4 quart (or larger) dutch oven, braiser, or baking dish with a tight fitting lid.
Add enough fresh water to cover the beans by 1”.
Cover and bake for 60 – 75 minutes. When beans are slightly firmer than you want them, they’re ready to go to the next step.