Urban’s Chicken Florentine

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban’s Chicken Florentine

Will feed 3 to 4 with leftovers likely

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

1 Pound Dry Pasta of your choice

2 Cups Stock (Chicken or Veggie)

1/2 Cup Heavy Cream

1/2 large Yellow Onion

1/2 Red Bell Pepper

1 small Roma Tomato

1/2 small lemon

6-8 cloves fresh Garlic

3-4 packed Cups fresh Spinach

1/4 Cup Parmigiano Cheese

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter

2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour

1 teaspoon Turkish Oregano

1 teaspoon Crushed Sage

1 Turkish Bay Leaf

6-8 twists black Pepper

3 finger pinch Salt

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

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

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Fine grate cheese.

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

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

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

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

Carefully remove chicken to a plate.

Add butter to the skillet and allow to melt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toss in the spinach and stir to incorporate well.

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

Devour and make yum yum noises.

Gastriques

While we’re on the subject of sauces that seriously elevate your game, we must touch on gastriques. Not only are they fairly simple and quick, they’re delicious – and they give you another tragically hip French culinarily word to casually toss about.

Urban’s Sweet Cherry Gastrique

Gastriques are a combination of caramelized sugars and acids. They’re great for several reasons – Standing alone, they add a delightful zing to dang near anything – meat, poultry, seafood, tofu, veggies and spuds to name a few. Added to a basic pan sauce, they’ll elevate the flavor profile and add a really nice shine, (we do eat with our eyes, after all). They’ll also add depth and complexity to other sauces, soups, or stews. Of course they’re also perfect to play ‘what have I got that needs to be used’ with – If your kitchen’s like ours, fruit can find itself in that category fairly often, and a lot of that works wonderfully in these sauces.

Goodies for a cherry gastrique

If the description of a gastrique makes you think of sweet and sour sauce, you’re spot on. Many cuisines employ this trick in a dizzying array – whether it’s gastrique, sweet and sour, agrodolce, agre dulce, Thai sweet chile sauce, al pastor, hoisin, Worcestershire, or catsup, they’re all the same concept – Think about what most American barbecue sauces use for primary ingredients, and there you are again. Just as with those examples, a gastrique can be anything from a thin sauce to a very thick one, depending on what you like and want it to do.

These days, we’re blessed with a whole lot of options when it comes to sugars and vinegars – I see white, brown, dark brown, Mexican, rock, turbinado sugars, as well as honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, molasses, and various simple syrups we’ve put together. In vinegar, I see white distilled, cider, balsamic, white balsamic, white wine, red wine, sherry, port, malt, Japanese rice, Chinese Chinkiang (black, plumb, and white), banana and pineapple from Rancho Gordo, and likely some more I missed. You probably don’t have all that at hand, but the point is that you can if you want to. Lighter sugars give lighter flavor, even when caramelized, whereas using molasses means you won’t have to caramelize much at all. Light vinegars yield light taste, while intense fruit varieties, or smoky black Chinkiang are much bolder. Gastriques are a delight for experimentation.

All that stuff aside, a simple gastrique is fast. Let’s say you’re cooking beef, and you just want a little sparkle added to that – sugar and red wine or vinegar will do the trick – couldn’t be simpler. Add dried cherries or cranberries and you’ve got something bolder. With any variant, make sure that what you’re using tastes good to you. Taste the vinegar and the sugar, so you know exactly what to expect.

Booze, especially good stuff made from fruit, can make spectacular sauces – brandy in any of its iterations is wonderful, (plain old brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, and so on). Port and sherry will too. The cooking process will remove the raw alcohol flavor, and if you use fairly high proof stuff, you can flambé it to do that quickly without losing flavor – and it’s fun – just don’t burn your house down.

Damn near any fruit will work great in a gastrique. You can mash, blend, or purée before you add if you want, or you can let stuff cook in the sauce – it’ll release all its goodies that way, and ripe fruit generally cooks down quite quickly. Dried can be reconstituted first, or just tossed in to do its thing. Citrus fruit can simply be squeezed, zested and squeezed, or rough chopped. Do give some thought to what sugar and vinegar you use – heavy versions of either will overwhelm delicate fruit, so pair accordingly.

General caveats – since you’re caramelizing sugars, don’t leave gastriques unattended for long, because those will burn. Cook over medium to medium-low heat. A little butter added at the end of cooking helps the shine stand out. Herbs and spices are fine and go great with all the constituents mentioned – Just choose carefully, and watch your ratios – These should be a minor flavor note, not a knock out punch. Warm spices like cinnamon or allspice go well with stuff you’d expect them to, like apples and peaches. Rosemary or thyme pairs well with berries and citrus, and so on.

Think of the gastrique as specifically providing a tangy element to your overall presentation. For instance, you might use a honey/malt vinegar/tomato/lemon gastrique for a pan sauce made from a whole roasted chicken. Gastriques will keep for a few days refrigerated in an airtight bottle, (repurposed hot sauce bottles are perfect). That said, fresh is best, so Len toward building in small batches that will get used pretty quickly.

Here’s a super simple iteration that you can customize hundreds of ways. You can serve this stand alone, or add a basic pan sauce, as the second version below does.

1/2 Cup Sweet – Sugars, Honey, Agave, Molasses, etc

1 Cup Acid – Vinegars, Wines, Booze, or combinations thereof

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

Pinch of Salt

Add sweet to a sauce or sauté pan over medium heat and cook, whisking steadily, until whatever you’ve used darkens in color, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the acid and whisk thoroughly to incorporate.

Continue cooking and whisking until the sauce reduces to a syrup-like consistency, about 5-10 minutes.

Add the butter and salt, whisk to incorporate, and turn the heat off.

Plate your stuff and add the gastrique.

Sherry Gastrique is made the same way – it’s great for chicken, fish, and veggie dishes and sides. Raspberries also go great with this combination of sweetener and vinegar.

1 Cup Champagne Vinegar

1 Cup Amber Agave Nectar

1/2 Cup Dry Sherry

Urban’s Sweet Cherry Gastrique

This is great for lots of things – from beef, pork, or poultry, to Brussels sprouts. Varying the sweets and acids will yield whole new iterations.

1 Cup Sweet Cherries (dried, fresh, whatever you’ve got)

1/2 Cup Broth (see below for more on this)

1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar

1/2 Cup Blackstrap Molasses

1 Ounce Unsalted Butter

Pinch of Salt

If you’ve cooked a protein, grab the vessel you cooked things in, put it over medium heat, and add 3/4 cup water.

Scrape all the naughty bits off the pan bottom, whisk to incorporate, and let that reduce to about 1/2 cup.

A simple pan sauce

If you didn’t cook anything worthy of using, any stock will do – Match that to what you’re making the sauce for, (veggie stock for veggies, beef for beef, and so on.

If you braised, slow roasted, etc, use 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid.

When your stock is heated through, add the molasses and whisk to thoroughly incorporate.

Add the vinegar and cherries and whisk to incorporate.

Reducing a sweet cherry gastrique

Let the sauce cook at a bare simmer until you reach the consistency you want – from fairly light to very syrupy is a range of about 5 to 15 minutes cooking time.

Sweet Cherry Gastrique

Plate your meal, add the gastrique, and smile smugly while your diners swoon and make yum yum noises.

Pot roast with a sweet cherry gastrique

Blackberry Gastrique goes great with beef, pork, and meaty mushrooms like porcini. Blueberries and cranberries also are great with this combination of sweetener and vinegar. Again, this will go great with a pan sauce version like the cherry one above.

1 Cup Malt Vinegar

1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar

1 Cup fresh Blackberries

Pan Sauces

When you hear the term ‘pan sauce,’ what do you think of? You do think of something, right? Hell, gravy is a pan sauce, albeit on the heavier end of things – Something lighter than that but still plenty potent is the epitome of this genre, and a must have for your cooking arsenal – They’re easy, fast, and they elevate your cooking game appreciably – I’d argue that employing these well is a trait that separates good cooks from OK ones.

Pan sauces are created from the liquid and the little nasty bits generated by searing or roasting meat or fowl, and that’s why such a simple thing tastes so wonderful. These sauces are traditionally put back on the stuff they’re made from, but if you don’t try them on potatoes or veggies now and again, you’re missing a big treat. In fact, spectacular pan sauces can also be generated from roasting fish, potatoes, and vegetables, so never throw that stuff away.

Pan sauces lend themselves perfectly to meat and poultry for a couple of excellent reasons – First, they add a bit more moisture and pizazz to roasted proteins, and secondly, they can and should easily be prepared during the time those proteins are resting, subsequent to cooking and prior to carving.

In essence, these are emulsions, formed by combining two or more liquids that usually don’t stay together well – AKA fat and acid. Juices from what you’ve roasted, along with the fond, (that’s the hip chef name for the naughty bits left on the pan), provide the core fat component. An acid is added, most often in the form of wine. Then comes seasoning, a little more fat, and a little aromatic base. Everything gets whisked together, et viola. With minimal prep, a pan sauce can easily be put together in the time it takes your steaks or chops to rest.

As for what you should use, it’s really a ‘what have I got’ question. Fresh herbs of any kind pretty much always get the nod. Whatever red or white wine you’ve got on hand will do fine. Onion, shallot, and garlic are all good, as are capers and olives. Used sparingly, dried herbs and blends are fine – just keep in mind that they won’t have enough time to get much past their dried stated in a sauce made this quickly. Citrus makes a dandy minor note.

Get your mis en place together before you start the sauce – that’s key to keeping things simple and fast. On the flip side, don’t leave a pan sauce sitting for very long after it’s done – This is a temperature fused emulsion, and it will separate as it cools – so get it on the plate ASAP to avoid the uglies. You do warm your plates for service, right?

If you try a sauce from potatoes and/or veggies, keep in mind that there’s no fat, so add that accordingly – another couple tablespoons of oil and/or butter will do the trick.

Varying pieces of the puzzle will reward you with whole new flavor profiles – different wine and citrus, maybe a couple drops of Worcestershire or Maggi instead of fish sauce, different herbs or aromatics, mustard, horseradish, sweet minor notes from honey or agave – the sky is the limit, and again, the best way to experiment with this is to search your fridge and pantry and use what needs to be used.

Here’s my fave general purpose sauce to get you started. Branch out from there, and make ‘em yours.

Urban’s Go To Pan Sauce

The good stuff left over in the roasting pan

1/2 Cup White Wine (I use whatever is there and open)

2 Tablespoons minced Shallot

1/4 small fresh Lemon

3 Tablespoons Ghi (Unsalted butter is fine)

Spring or two fresh Herbs, (Thyme, Oregano, Sage leaves, Rosemary are all great – a light hand of dry is OK if that’s all you’ve got)

3-4 drops good quality Fish Sauce, (Red Boat is my go to)

Pinch of kosher salt

3-4 twists fresh ground pepper.

Pull whatever you roasted from the oven and the pan and transfer to a platter to rest, somewhere warm and loosely covered with metal foil.

Carefully pour off most of the fat from the roasting pan, leaving a couple of tablespoons.

Place the roasting pan on a burner over medium heat, (it’s already hot, so it doesn’t need a bunch of help in that regard – And handle the hot pan carefully!)

Toss in the shower, and sauté until it becomes translucent, about one minute.

Add the wine, and using a fork to scrape up all available naughty bits, and get all of that stuff loose.

Cook until the raw alcohol smell dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.

Squeeze in the lemon juice and whisk to incorporate.

Add the ghi or butter a bit at a time, and whisk steadily to incorporate.

Add the fish sauce and herbs and continue to whisk.

Turn burner heat off, add salt and pepper and adjust as needed.

Slice your protein, sauce, devour, accept raving accolades from your diners.

What does bay leaf do for our cooking, anyway?

When you make soup, or stew, or any number of sauces at home, you add a bay leaf or two, right? Ever wonder why you do that – I mean, really give it some thought? I’ll be honest – I hadn’t, so I guess it’s time to ask – What does bay leaf do for our cooking, anyway?

Full disclosure, a social media acquaintance sent me a link to a new-agey treatise on bay leaf. This thing claimed that, ‘recent scientific studies have proven’ that bay leaf converted triglycerides to monounsaturated fats, eliminates heartburn, acidity, and constipation, regulates bowel movements and blood sugar, makes the human body produce insulin, eliminates bad cholesterol, protects the heart from seizures and strokes, relieves insomnia, anxiety, kidney stones and cures infections – No freakin’ wonder we put them in soup!

Most if not all of those claims are, at best, gross exaggeration and distortion of facts. The real dead giveaway was this line – ‘Do you know that if you boil some bay leaves in a glass of water and taste it, it will have no flavor?’

My answer to that is, ‘do you know that this statement is complete bullshit?’ Either the author has never actually done the experiment, or did so with bad bay leaves. Had they done it properly, they’d have discovered a much more potent and nuanced result.

Sweet bay laurel tree

Before we dive into that, let’s define what exactly the bay leaf in our pantry is – it’s Sweet Bay, AKA Bay Laurel, or Lauris nobilis. It’s native to the Mediterranean, and cultivated commercially all around that region, as well as France, Spain, Mexico, and Portugal. Now for the record, the other bay we see in a lot of pantries is California Bay, and that’s a whole different beast, Umbullularia californica – it’s far more potent than sweet bay, with longer, narrower leaves.

Dried Sweet Bay leaves Dried Sweet Bay leaves
Dried California Bay leaves Dried California Bay leaves

Problem is, a lot of purveyors just call their stuff ‘Bay Leaf,’ and that can make things tough on us home cooks. Different growing areas produce leaves with subtle differences you may or may not like. In any event, it’d be nice to know from whence yours came, wouldn’t it? Good outfits like World Spice and Penzey’s will tell you that. 

It’s good to keep both the sweet and California versions on hand, by the way. While California bay is intense and medicinal, the sweet, (often called Turkish), is lighter, more nuanced and savory. The latter is far and away my personal go to, for the record. California bay is nice, in moderation, in low and slow soups and stews where time and temperature can simmer out the lion’s share of the more volatile constituents that spring forth early on in the cooking process. In any event, you’d be well advised to find out what variety you have, and like best.

Sweet Bay is complex, with dozens of volatile compounds onboard each leaf. The heavy hitters are cineole, pinine, linalool, and methyl eugenol. Interestingly enough, most of those compounds are also found in basil. California Bay is a bit different, packing cineole, pinine, and sabinine – that last one is responsible for things like the spiciness of black pepper, nutmeg, and carrot oil. Cineole, linalool, and pinine are terpenes, a rather volatile chemical family that has much to do with a wide variety of powerful scents in the natural world. Their highly reactive nature makes them some of the first things we smell when bay leaves are used in cooking. Methyl eugenol is a phenolic found in over 450 plants, and plays a vital role in pollination – how about that in your spaghetti sauce? These compounds are fascinating, especially when we think about how they’ve made that journey from chemical warning sign, or pollination attractor, to our dining table.

On to that experiment then, since that’s the best way to ascertain that what you’ve got in your pantry is packin’. Set a small pan of water to boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Toss in a couple bay leaves of your choice, let them do their thing for 3 to 5 minutes, and then stick your nose down there.

The first things you get will be those fleeting terpenes. If you’ve got California bay, those notes will be the big medicinal ones, menthol and camphor. If you’ve got sweet bay, you’ll still get some hefty initial notes, like camphor from the cineole, but as simmering time progresses, you’ll catch a sort of floral skunkiness – that’s the linalool’s influence. Piney, sagey notes come from the pinine, while the methyl eugenol might remind you of general earthy, savory notes. If you let that simmer go for 45 to 60 minutes, as you would for a soup or stew, and then taste your bay leaf tea, you’ll get hints of all these things – If you don’t, then what you’ve got is old, or old, crappy bay leaf – and that’s not at all uncommon.

Bay leaf’s contribution to your cooking is subtle – it’s a background stalwart, not a lead singer. What makes a sauce, soup, or stew great is the layering of flavors, and for that, a solid aromatic base is critical. Bay lends a raft of minor notes that, while perhaps not missed in and of themselves, certainly will be if they’re absent from the mix.

So what to do in your kitchen? Start by finding your bay leaf, opening the jar and giving it a big sniff. Do you get a nice, complex but subtle whiff of the stuff discussed herein? Do you remember where and when you bought those leaves? Does the container say anything about provenance? If the answer to those questions is, ‘no,’ then trash what you’ve got and get some fresh stuff. World Spice is a great go to for bay leaf – They carry both Turkish and California, and they’re always top notch quality. 

Bay does just fine as a dried herb, by the way. If you keep them in a clean, airtight glass jar, out of direct sunlight and wide swings of temperature, they’ll be good to go for 6 months, easy. If you want more from your bay, store them in your freezer and they’ll last for years.

Fresh Sweet Bay leaves Fresh Sweet Bay leaves

You can use fresh bay leaves in cooking, but know that their potency is quite a bit higher than dried leaves, so adjust accordingly, and again, be sure you know what you’ve got – A freshly crushed leaf of fresh bay from our garden smells subtly savory and complex, just as described, whereas, at least to me, fresh California bay smells like a medicine cabinet – an overdose of the latter will ruin a meal really quickly.

Grow your own bay leaves

Finally, you can grow your own if you’re living in a USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 or thereabouts – We’re a 7+ here in the northwest corner of Washington State, and our little sweet bay plant is doing fine, even with a couple of hard frosts under its belt. Granted, it’s a small bush and not a tree – in its native turf, it can reach over fifteen meters in height. Here’s a very nice primer on doing so.

Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous

It’s a sure bet that, if you eat enough Mexican, Tex Mex, Caribbean, or South American food, you’ve enjoyed some form of carne asada. Certainly then, you’ve swooned over the rich and pungent blends of flavors presented by something that looks so simple, but tastes so complex. The answer lies in Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous.

The literal translation of the South American name for the dish is roasted meat, which tells us right away that the cooking side of things isn’t complex. All that magic comes from the mojo, and fortunately for us, it’s not only easy to make, it’s downright a gas.

Carne asada de UrbanMonique
Carne asada de UrbanMonique

Before we dive fully into Mojo, let’s spend a few looking at the history of carne asada – It’s as old as fire and cooking vessels, really. No one can lay claim to originating the dish, (although that hasn’t stopped many from trying). In addition to straight asada, there are popular variants that have much to do with how the meat is handled for service – Shredded or ground, as opposed to cooked whole and sliced, for instance. Shredded or pulled beef is found in American barbecue, ropa vieja in the Caribbean, and carne deshebrada in Mexico. One of the few variants with a fairly clear origin is carne asada fries, a sort of Tex-Mex swing at poutine, with carne asada and typical fixins replacing the gravy – Lolita’s in San Diego lays claim to that one, by the way. The versions most Americans are accustomed to stem from northern Mexican cuisines, although there are popular southern variants as well.

Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade
Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade

Specific cuts of beef are commonly associated with carne asada, and they’re not exactly the rock stars. These include skirt, flank, and flap steak, the stuff the folks doing the boogie up on the hill certainly did not buy for themselves. That stuff was considered refuse, and the genesis of great meals formed around such marginal cuts is another example of the disenfranchised making due. Yet here in the 21st century, popularity has turned all that on its head – When we shopped for this post, skirt steak wasn’t available, and both flank and flap were commanding $10 a pound – TEN BUCKS A POUND!! Remember what happened with short ribs, or veal bones, a while back? Same gig – Popularity breeds stunning expense, straight out. The moral of the story is to be flexible – When we spied eye of the round cut thin as steaks for $5 a pound, it was game over, and ‘authenticity’ be hanged – It’ll all eat just fine – Boneless chuck, the bargain basement of beef cuts, makes perfectly wonderful carne asada.

Mojo de UrbanMonique - Leave it rustic, or blend, as you prefer

Now, on to that mojo. If you have a carniceria nearby, you can bet they offer carne asada, either in whole steaks, sliced, or chopped. You’ll likely find it either preperada, (marinated) or not, and if you get their marinade, what you’ll get can run the gamut from simple salt and oil, to quite complex mixes that rival a mole – The marinade is where the real poetic license lives with carne asada. What you create is up to you, (and we’ll provide plenty of options herein to get ya started.)

As common and as diverse as spaghetti sauce, there are dozens of popular, commercial mojo variants, let alone the tens of thousands rendered by home cooks everywhere. The Spanish word Mojo derives from the Portuguese, Molho, which simply means sauce – a clear indicator of its ubiquity. There is general agreement that mojo originated in the Canary Islands, the archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. Canarian cuisine is a fascinating amalgamation of the native islanders, (sadly, now largely extinct), Spanish, Portuguese, and African roots. Their cooking emphasizes freshness, simplicity, and powerful flavors, many of which derive from various mojos. Literally every Canarian family has at least two signature mojos, passed down from generation to generation. The signature island dish, Papas Arrugadas, (wrinkly potatoes), is demonstrative of all that. Whole potatoes boiled in salt water, and served with red and green mojo – And in an interesting twist of serendipity, the potato isn’t native to the Canaries – They came from South America, of course.

Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas
Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas

In its simplest form, mojo contains olive oil, chiles (pimienta in the Canaries), garlic, paprika, coriander (either fresh or seed), and cumin. As mentioned, there are two primary branches of Canarian mojo, red and green. The red, fueled by dried or fresh chiles and paprika, is most often paired with meat, while the green, made with green peppers, cilantro, or parsley, compliments fish courses. There are many other iterations, some using local cheese, (mojo con queso), garlic, almonds, and fresh herbs – Check out that almond Mojo recipe and you’ll see what I mean about rivaling moles. One could easily spent a happy year working through all these lovely things, and one of these days, I just might.

The flow of humanity in the 16th through 19th centuries, both forced and chosen, brought mojo to Europe, then South America, the Caribbean, and eventually, North America. Mojo not only thrived, it grew in leaps and bounds. Were I forced to define a generic, accurate version that we here in the Estados Unidos are familiar with, it would certainly include chiles, citrus, garlic, oil, and vinegar – A Mexican vinaigrette, in essence. Proportions are pretty broadly interpreted, with the main aim being making enough to generously coat and marinate your proteins.

Established Mexican, Caribbean, and South American variants also run the gamut from super simple to dizzyingly complex. What this means to the home cook is that, in all honestly, you can’t go wrong – Combine stuff you love and that plays well together, and you’re in like Flynn. I’m going to offer several variants, including fairly faithful renderings of styles you’ve probably tried and liked – As I always note, use these as a springboard for personal creativity, and know that you’ll likely never do the exact same thing twice – The real beauty of Mojo is as a last minute inspirational meal – You’ve got this, that, and the other thing in your stores, so what do you do with them? You do this.

The basics for a Mexican style mojo
The basics for a Mexican style mojo

NOTE ON WHAT TO MAKE: Tacos, burritos, chimis, or taco salads, with fresh pick de gallo and warm tortillas, are almost a must for your first meal if you’re marinating proteins, but keep in mind, this stuff has North African and Iberian roots, so get bold and go that direction if you feel so inspired. And you can always sauté the meat with something new, change the spicing, and make something totally different.

Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover
Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover

NOTE ON MARINATING: Any marinade containing citrus, other acids like Vinegar, or other fruits like papaya, kiwi, pineapple, fig, or mango will break down the connective tissues in proteins as they marinate – There’s an enzyme called protease, (papain in papaya), that does the trick. That’s great for tenderizing tougher cuts, and it’s the secret as to why marginal stuff like skirt stake or flank steak can come out so tender. That said, be careful with the duration – There are a lot of recipes out there that advise marinating overnight, and that’s taking things too far – Going over 6 hours risks mushy meat, and nobody likes that texture. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as long as 4 or 5, and you’ll get great flavor infusion and a proper degree of tenderization.

Tacos Carne Asada
Tacos Carne Asada

NOTE ON GRILLING: Anything you marinate in Mojo will taste best grilled. And if you can, do so with wood or charcoal, although gas works just fine too. With the thinner cuts or proteins commonly used for carne asada, you’ve got to keep an eye on things – We’re talking a 2 minute punk rock song per side, as opposed to the common, classic rock 3-4 minutes a side measure. A lot of restaurants grill carne asada to well done, but you do not need to do that. Grill to medium rare, then allow a good 5 to 10 minute rest before you carve. If you use the more rustic cuts of beef, like skirt, flank, or flap steaks, carve 90° to the grain, at a 45° angle for each slice.

NOTE ON OIL: You’ll see I call for Avocado Oil on several Mojo recipes. I like it for it’s rich, buttery feel and neutral taste, as well as its exceptional smoke point. You can certainly use Extra Virgin Olive Oil in any of these recipes, but you really owe it to yourself to try avocado oil in the near future.

First, the classic Mojo roots.


Canarian Green Mojo

1 Bundle fresh Cilantro
3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 fresh Lime
3 cloves Garlic
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

Rinse and dry all produce.

Remove long stems from Cilantro, discard and mince the leaves.

Peel and stem garlic, and mince.

Juice lime, and set aside.

If you’re using whole spices, add salt, pepper, and cumin to a spice grinder and pulse to an even consistency, (3 or 4 pulses should do it.)

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, potatoes, fish, or veggies.

 

Canarian Red Mojo

1 large Red Sweet Pepper
2-4 fresh hot chiles, (chef’s choice, they don’t have to be red – Jalapeño, Habanero, Serrano, and Cayenne all work)
3 cloves fresh Garlic
2-3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin

Rinse all produce and pat dry.

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

Fine dice Pepper and chiles.

Mince Garlic.

Process Cumin to a powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, chicken, pork, or beef.

 

UrbanMonique Signature Mojo – This is a great all purpose Mojo, with a couple of our signature twists.

Prep for making mojo is simple and quick
Prep for making mojo is simple and quick

2 small Limes
1 navel Orange
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
1/2 bunch fresh Cilantro
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Live Cider Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt
3-4 twists fresh ground Pepper

Rinse and pat dry all produce.

Zest and juice the citrus, and reserve both.

Peel, stem, and mince the garlic.

Stem, de-seed, and devein the jalapeños, (leave the veins if you like more heat).

Remove long stems from Cilantro and mince the remainder.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Also does great with tofu, veggies, or fish.
And finally, here are a few Mexican and South American variants.

 

Quick Cervesa Mojo – Great for folks that don’t like heat.

1 bottle Negra Modelo Beer
1 small lime
1 bunch Green Onions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
Pinch of Sea Salt
A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Open beer and pour into a bowl, allowing it to loose its fizz and flatten somewhat, (About 5-10 minutes)

Zest and juice lime, set both aside.

Peel, stem and mince garlic

Trim and peel green onions, then leave them whole, as trimmed.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. Leave the sauce rustic, do not process it.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for an hour, then remove the steaks and the onions and grill both as desired. Goes great with the rest of the Negra Modelo six pack.

 

Taco Truck Mojo – There is no standard recipe, but this will put you in the running…

2 small Limes
2-4 hot Chiles of your choice
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon dark Soy Sauce
2 teaspoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Oregano
1/4 teaspoon Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon White Pepper

Rinse and pat dry produce.

Zest and juice Limes, set both aside.

Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (leave veins in if you want the heat). Fine dice chiles.

Peel and stem Garlic, then mince.

Process spices to a consistent rough powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 5 hours. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

 

Garlic Papaya Mojo

1 fresh Papaya
1 small Green Bell Pepper
3-4 Green Onions
1 small fresh Lime
3 cloves Fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon live Cider Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Pinch of Sea Salt
A couple twists fresh ground Pepper

Peel, seed and rough chop papaya.

Zest and juice Limes.

Stem, seed and devein green pepper, then dice.

Peel, stem green onions, then cut into 1/4″ thick rounds.

Peel, stem, and mince garlic.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 3 hours – don’t exceed that too much, as the papain enzyme in papaya is formidable stuff. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

A Story of Bitter Orange

This is a story of bitter orange, naranja agria. I came to love this little bundle of pucker power through the cuisine of the Yucatán peninsula. There, bitter orange is everywhere in the food, most famously in the signature dish, conchinita pibil, an intoxicating alchemy of naranja agria, chile heat, and low and slow pit cooking. While chiles and the Yucatán swing on pit barbecue are critical elements here, the one thing you absolutely can’t do pibil without is bitter orange.

Bitter Orange is seminal to a bunch more cuisines as well, from Cuban and other Caribbean islands, to Spanish, Moroccan, and Persian. This is not, for the most part, an eating or drinking orange and juice, although in Mexico, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them sliced, salted, and slathered in chile paste as a snack. These oranges are very bitter indeed, and sour to boot – Think more lemon or lime than orange in that regard. Yet the orangey notes are most definitely there, and that’s what brings the magic.

Naranja Agria - The noble bitter orange

Also known as Seville orange, sour orange, marmalade orange, naranja acida, naranji, melangolo, and even soap orange, Citrus x aurantium originated in Southeast Asia and spread rapidly around the globe. Natives of the South Sea Islands believe it hit their shores prehistorically. It was the sole European orange for hundreds of years, and the first to arrive on this side of the pond. Now grown commercially virtually worldwide, bitter orange trees range from maybe 10 feet to over 30 feet. It’s generally a thorny evergreen tree, with leaves and flowers that smell absolutely delightful, and smallish fruit, 2 to 4 inches or so, and thick, wrinkly, oily skins, (that make great marmalade, of course.)

The noble bitter orange tree

As favored as these fruit are to so many cuisines, it’s natural that numerous varieties have been established. Seville is probably the most internationally recognizable, but there’s also the English bergamot (bouquet here in the states), the chinotto from the Mediterranean, the daidai from Japan and China, the Californian goleta, the South American Paraguay, and the Indian karna – There’s a bunch more than this, but you get the idea – They’re beloved all over the place.

There’s a nice range of notable food uses for sour orange, other than powering sauces and marinades – The peels make amazing marmalade, of course. Oil squeezed from the peels is a signature orange flavoring for curaçao liqueur, candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and a bunch of other stuff. Orange blossom honey is a treat wherever you can find it. Orange flower water finds its way into Middle Eastern and Persian food. In quite a few places, the juice is fermented into wine – I’ve never tried that, but I’d like to.

There are some very interesting non-food uses for naranja agria, tambien – when the fruit and leaves are crushed together, they’ll lather in water, and are sometimes used as soap. The perfume industry loves the oil and flowers. The juice has antiseptic and hemostatic properties. And finally, the wood is nice stuff – Dense and hard, it was used in Cuba for baseball bats.

So, now that you’re all excited to join the party, it’s time for some good news/bad news – First, the bad – in all likelihood, you won’t find decent sour orange juice anywhere near you – In fact, you probably won’t find it at all. Oh sure, there’s stuff out there called bitter or sour orange – Goya, Badia, and Lechonera are the brands you’re most likely to see – But the fact is, none of them are bitter orange juice. They contain, variously, orange juice concentrate, other juices like lime, lemon, or grapefruit, and at best, a little bit of sour orange oil, and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives – the Lechonera brand, in fact, has lists propylene glycol as the seventh ingredient therein – In other words, at best these are shelf stable, pale shadows of the real thing.

So called ‘bitter orange’ marinade is anything but

The good news is, if you have a decent Latin grocery near you, there’s a 90%+ chance they sell fresh naranja agria, (and same goes for a Persian or Middle Eastern grocery, where they’ll probably call them Persian oranges). I get plump, juicy Valencias for around 50¢ a pop at La Gloria in Bellingham, WA. Do make sure you confirm they’re agria, (albeit they’ll probably have the little sticker on them telling what variety and place of origin they are). They’ll last like most citrus, good for three to four weeks refrigerated in a drawer designed for holding produce. Four or five is plenty to provide enough juice for most recipes. As with all citrus, look for firm, heavy fruit. More so than sweet oranges, bitters may have some green on their skins and still be ripe.

Now, what to do if you get a sudden hankerin’ to build something that calls for bitter orange when you ain’t got none? Then, it’s definitely time to fake it. As those commercial marinades indicate, the proper substitution is a combination of citrus juices, and maybe even some vinegar. The key here is the taste of orange forward in the mix, with the sourness of lemons, limes, and maybe vinegar – Again, naranja agria is really, really acidic – truly sour, with bitter notes from the oils. What you really need to do, assuming you’re into this, is try fresh squeezed sour orange juice, and then concoct what most closely resembles that to your taste – Everyone’s different, so your mix shall be your own.

When I posted a piece on pibil back in May of ‘17, I was using a mix of orange juice, lemon juice, cider vinegar, and tequila – And for the record, no, I don’t do that any more, and yes, I’ve revised that post. My current, (and consistently used), go to sour orange sub mix has morphed into equal portions of orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and a minor share of pineapple vinegar, (the latter comes from Rancho Gordo and is worth its weight in gold). I build it in just shy of one cup batches, like so,

 

Urban’s Faux Sour Orange

All juices fresh squeezed

1/4 Cup Orange Juice

1/4 Cup Grapefruit Juice

1/4 Cup Lime Juice 

2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (Good Cider vinegar is just fine)

Again, you’ll have to experiment and tweak things to your liking. Finally, here’s a Cuban inspired chicken dish that’ll take full advantage of naranja agria you can give a try to.

Urban’s Pollo Cubano

Urban’s Pollo al Cubano 

1 whole chicken, around 3 pounds

1 Cup fresh Bitter Orange Juice (or Sub)

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1-3 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles, (Assuming you can’t get fresh Cubanelles – If you can, do)

1 small Sweet Onion

1 Red Bell Pepper

4-6 fat cloves Garlic

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

2 Bay Leaves 

Salt and fresh ground Pepper

Butterfly the chicken, (if you don’t know this trick, check it out here)

Skin and trim onion and garlic. 

Fine dice onion, and mince the garlic.

Stem and seed chiles, then fine dice.

Stem, seed, and fine dice the bell pepper.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through. 

Add chiles, peppers, and onion. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about another 1-2 minutes.

Remove veggie blend from heat and allow to cool to room temp.

Zest and juice whatever citrus you’re using.

In a non-reactive bowl, combine juice, zest, remaining oil, the cooled sofrito, oregano, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and a few twists of ground pepper. Whisk to fully incorporate.

Place the chicken in a baking dish as close to the size of the butterflied bird as you’ve got.

Pour the marinade on the chicken, and then rub it in by hand, making sure all exposed surfaces get coated, including underneath.

Allow the bird to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 – Any more than that can lead to a mushy chicken.

Bake the bird on a middle rack in a 350° F oven, or grill it if you prefer – 

I like to bake, because more of the marinade stays with the chicken.

Serve with rice, black beans, and cold beer.

Sauce Grenobloise is a delight!

There’s an old assumption that French sauces are all heavy handed and overbearing, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are a bunch of variants, many of them light and delightfully complimentary. One of my absolute favorites comes from Grenoble, the city tucked up into the edge of the French Alps. Sauce Grenobloise is a delight, and it’s great for so much more than fish.

Gratin dauphinois, Grenoble’s signature dish

Grenoble is perhaps most food famous for gratin dauphinois, that decadent potato dish, and frankly, that makes sense – The Rhône-Alpes region of France favors such hearty delights, without a doubt. It’s interesting to me that sauce grenobloise hails therefrom. Yes, it’s a butter sauce, but it’s simple and light-handed, complimenting a dish while staying in the background, as a good sauce should, oui? Ah bon – and it’s pronounced, grehnoh-blewahs-ah, by the way.

Grenobloise, (a play on sauce Meunière), is comprised of butter, lemon, parsley, capers, and some croutons. Almost always paired with fish, it imparts a subtle richness and a truly delightful tang – But its charms are wasted if limited to only piscine pairings – Grenobloise will compliment a wide range of foods and dishes, and is a perfect vehicle for raising leftovers to new heights.

First off, some great target fish pairings, oui? Personally, I favor firm fleshed white fish, like halibut, tuna, and cod, but salmon, flounder, sole, rockfish, bass, trout, catfish and panfish will also shine. Lobster, crab, clams, and mussels are also great pairings.

We eat very, very little fish because of the delicate condition of our oceans and fisheries, so we’re more likely to pair grenobloise with chicken, pork, or lamb, and it’s sublime on freshly scrambled eggs. Let us not forget the non-animal based proteins – fresh, firm tofu and beans are great. There’s also some wonderful pulse, grain, and cereal options, like lentils, beans, rice, and wild rice. And grenobloise is a delight with veggies like asparagus, spuds, artichokes, brussels sprouts, and lettuce salads.

potatoes with garlic, celery leaf, and Korean chile flake

Making grenobloise couldn’t be easier, albeit there are plenty of opportunities for tweaking the recipe. Ratios must be a bit fluid, as the power of parsley, lemons, and capers will vary. In the purest incarnation, the sauce is made solo, on the stove top, and added to whatever you wish. If on the other hand, you’re sautéing or pan frying something, making the sauce in that same pan when your other stuff is done isn’t a bad idea at all – It’ll lend some subtly married flavors to the finished dish.

Pan seared chicken, finished in the oven

Obviously, freshness and quality matter here. The better your ingredients, the better the sauce. It’s hard for most of us to get fresh butter, so this might be a great time for you take a swing at making your own – The results will reward you richly. Likewise, fresh green parsley from your garden is best – Most French recipes call for flatleaf, but if curly is what you’ve got and/or prefer, by all means use that. 

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered what ‘nonpareil,’ or sometimes ‘Non Pareil’ on a jar of capers means, it means they’re way good. After they’re picked, capers are sorted by size, then brined or dried or salted. The smallest are the priciest, one that ‘has no equal,’ as the French put it – They’re the best for taste and texture, and that’s what you want.

 

Sauce Grenobloise

1/4 Cup fresh unsalted Butter

1 small fresh Lemon

2 Tablespoons Nonpareil Capers

2 Tablespoons fresh Parsley

1/2 Cup Croutons

If you don’t have croutons handy – 

Preheat oven to 300° F and set a rack in the middle position.

Grab a nice, thick slice of densely crumbed bread, (whatever you like – Let’s not get fussy…)

Cut bread into roughly 1/2” squares.

Spread croutons on a baking sheet and bake until light golden and crunchy, about 4-7 minutes.

Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

For the Sauce – 

Zest the lemon and cut it in half. Reserve half for the juice, and carefully slice out the flesh from the other half, removing pith and fibrous stuff. Dice the flesh.

Mince the parsley.

Drain the capers.

Mise en place for sauce grenobloise

In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the butter and melt. Again, if you sautéed or pan fried something, by all means use that pan to make the sauce in.

Melting the butter for sauce grenobloise

Whisk the butter steadily, and take care that it doesn’t burn. Cook until the butter is golden brown, about 3-5 minutes.

The butter will likely foam when you add lemon

Add the lemon zest, juice and flesh, capers, and parsley. Whisk to incorporate and allow all that to heat through, about 1-2 minutes. NOTE: The butter may foam up when the citrus juice hits it, so be careful.

Sauce Grenobloise

Remove sauce from heat.

Arrange croutons on whatever it is you’re saucing and apply sauce liberally.

Sauce Grenobloise deployed

Enjoy – and you’ll need a piece or two of fresh, crusty bread to sop up every last drop with. 

A crisp, cold Pilsner, or Provençal rose wouldn’t hurt either.

Cilantro Pesto III

Some of you know that I make guitars. Among luthiers, there are factions referred to as right and left brainers. The left brainers tend toward strict mathematical method, while right brainers work more organically from intuition. Truth is, few builders are purely one or the other. The same thing can be said of chefs. In both pursuits, I tend toward right brain creativity, informed by formal training, experience, and the hard and fast science behind cooking. Add to that the fact that I really don’t care for being told what to do without some information behind the direction, and you’ve pretty much got the heart of what drives UrbanMonique.

When a recipe shows up here, trust that it’s been researched and made more than once before you see it, the same thing that’s done in professional kitchens around the world. Even if a dish is a daily special, offered only once, there will be a process of discussion and some refinement done prior to it being chalked onto the board. Fact is, the daily specials are often driven by product that needs to be used right now. Chefs will discuss what to do, maybe coming up with something genuinely new, but more often arriving at that new special after someone says, “Remember that Provençal fish thing we did? We could do a take on that here..”

I’m blessed with a very talented, honest, and passionate muse in the kitchen; she goes by the name of Monica. Not a day goes by that we don’t discuss what we did last and how we might improve it, what we’re doing next, how we’ll do it, what we expect to attain. For my mind, that process is critical to success. If you love to cook, and you don’t practice some like form, start. If you don’t have a human partner, then write down what you do, and go from there. Even better, email or tweet me, and we’ll tweak it together. Passion and love of cooking is at the core of creativity and exploration. We were discussing our next opus last night, when I blurted out “God, I love food!” M laughed, nodded and said, “That’s funny coming from you, but yeah!”

Now about that cilantro. I love the stuff, so it’s always in our kitchen, fresh and/or dried. Recently, plans that included a lot of cilantro fell through, so we had too much on hand. This herb has a short shelf life, so something needed to be done right away to preserve rather than waste. We decided on pesto, and that we’d use whatever else was on hand, building a variant we’d not done before. This is what we came up with, and it’s stellar, frankly. The rich, buttery flavor of the avocado oil and feta balances perfectly with the tang of the lemon and herbaceous base of cilantro. Here’s what we did.

P.S. Yes, I know some of you don’t like cilantro. Tough luck, that… We are working on a piece that speaks to the science behind your malady, so stay tuned.

 photo image-17.jpg

1 well packed Cup Cilantro
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil
1/4 Cup Feta Cheese
Juice & Zest of 1/2 fresh Lemon
2 small cloves fresh Garlic
Salt and a few twists of ground Pepper

Zest and juice lemon.

Process everything but the oil, salt, and pepper in a food processor or blender until thoroughly incorporated.

With the processor or blender running, (Low speed if you’ve got one), add the oil in a slow, steady stream.

Stop when you hit the consistency you like.

Taste and season to taste with salt and pepper, and adjust lemon if needed.

Freeze leftovers as needed. Pesto works great in an ice cube tray, frozen. Just pop out a cube when you need one.

Here are Cilantro Pesto I and Cilantro Pesto II if you’ve not tried them already.

 

A Couple of Rancho Gordo Tweaked Recipes

I wrote about RG beans not long ago, and frankly, they’re still on my mind, as is their stunningly good Pineapple Vinegar. That combo had me digging through old favorite summer recipes and tweaking them for these newfound delights. So here, for your reading and eating pleasure, are a revamped teriyaki marinade, and an incredible three bean salad. Enjoy!

Summer is grilling season, and it wouldn’t be right without teriyaki in the mix. That pineapple vinegar inspired me to alter my go to marinade thusly.

Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade
Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade

RG Pineapple Vinegar Teriyaki Marinade

1/2 Cup Chicken Stock, (Veggie stock or water are both fine too)

1/4 Cup Tamari

1/4 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 Tablespoons Rock Sugar (Dark Brown Sugar is fine too)

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot

2 Cloves fresh Garlic

1” fresh Ginger Root

Trim, peel, and mince garlic and ginger.

In a sauce pan over medium heat, combine tamari, vinegar, agave, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger.

Whisk to incorporate – When sauce begins to scale, reduce heat to low.

Combine arrowroot and stock, which to incorporate thoroughly.

Add stock mixture to sauce and whisk thoroughly. Allow sauce to heat through, whisking steadily, until it reaches the thickness you like, about 2-4 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl, allow to cool to room temperature before use – You can set up an ice bath in a second bowl to hasten that process if it’s hot where you are, like it was today where we is…

marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!
marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!

Separate some to use as a dipping sauce if desired.

That same stuff, along with dang near any or all RG beans, inspired this twist on Three Bean Salad.

Classic Three Bean Salad
Classic Three Bean Salad

Three bean salad is a delight in the dog days of summer – Cool, tangy, and hearty to boot. While I truly love the traditional base of pinto, wax, and green beans, you can and should do whatever mix you like – This is the perfect time of year to play with whatever is fresh at hand. The beauty of that freedom is that the dish really does change in very fundamental ways when you vary the bean trio, even with the same dressing. What I show below is my personal fave, but there too, you can and should go with what you’ve got fresh in the garden whenever possible. The mainstays to me are the rhythm section of that dressing – Rancho Gordo’s incredible Pineapple Vinegar, and fresh avocado oil – It creates a beautiful base to go just about anywhere from – I just got this stuff, and am absolutely enamored with it, so I re-did my go recipe, (which used live cider vinegar), to reflect same.

Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.
Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.

Speaking of Rancho Gordo, it’s there that a raft of stunningly delicious bean options await – Their heirloom stuff is so good, you can easily hop down the rabbit hole trying out different combinations. Their garbanzos, limas, and yellow woman beans make an incredible trio, with a delightful depth and breadth of flavors and textures, and again – That’s just one of many, many options. The quality of these beans is so far above anything else, you truly must try them.

Yet another combo...
Yet another combo…

Three bean salad definitely likes a little time for things to marry, so it’s a great dish to make ahead. And of course, if you have other veggies you love, that are ready to rock, add those too – You sure don’t need my permission!

Urban’s Go To Three Bean Salad

1 Cup Rancho Gordo Rio Zape Beans

1 Cup Fresh Green Beans

1 Cup Fresh Wax Beans

1 Cup Sweet Onion

1 stalk fresh Celery, with leaves

Sea Salt and fresh ground Grains of Paradise, to taste

For the Dressing

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/3 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons fresh Shallot, minced

1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon fresh Thyme

1 teaspoon fresh Dill

1/4 teaspoon Chile flake

Rio Zape Beans should be cooked to al dente.

Blanch green and wax beans in boiling water until al dente, about 2-3 minutes – Have a bowl of ice water ready beside the stove, and plunge the beans into that as soon as they’re right.

Rinse and stem onion and celery, and then medium chop, (chiffonade celery leaf).

Rinse, stem and mince garlic, thyme, and dill.

In a large, non-reactive bowl, combine all beans, onion, and celery. Season with a three finger pinch of sea salt and a half dozen twists of grains of paradise – Gently toss to thoroughly incorporate.

In a second non-reactive bowl, combine all dressing ingredients and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Allow dressing to marry for 15 minutes, then dress salad with a steady drizzle – You may or may not want to use all of it, so stop when you’re happy with the ratio.

Allow salad to marinate, chilled, for at least 2 hours prior to serving.

Will do fine refrigerated for a couple days, if it lasts that long…

Spring Rolls – Delicious and Easy

Nobody truly knows the origin of the spring roll. While we here in the U. S. see them as Asian food, they are, In fact, a worldwide treat, and not all those threads lead to the Far East. One thing’s for certain, though – Spring rolls are delicious, simple to make, and a fantastic way to clean out the fridge and garden, especially during the heady growing months of summer.

Spring Rolls a la Urban
Spring Rolls a la Urban

Spring rolls are usually dim sum, an appetizer, although as anyone knows who’s tucked into a freshly made batch, they can and should be a meal whenever the mood strikes. If we had to posit on a point of origin, China would probably get the nod. Chūn Juǎn, 春卷, means spring or egg roll, and they go back a spell in Chinese history – The popular version of things traces them back to the Jin Dynasty, which ruled from the mid third century to the early fifth. It is said that to celebrate the first harvests of spring, thin cakes would be filled with fresh vegetables and served with various sauces. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, (early 600s through early 900s), spring rolls got a bit hotter, as the advent of imported foods like chiles and garlic made their way into the Chinese culinary lexicon. By the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the thin cakes had gotten notably thinner, much more like wonton, egg roll, and spring roll wrappers are today.

Spring rolls may be fried, deep fried, steamed, or cold, depending on the fillings, region, and history they reflect. In general, the fried and steamed versions are smaller – bite or a coupla bite sized things. The fresh versions, served cold and wrapped in rice paper – those translucent, ethereal wrappers that let the beauty of fresh ingredients shine – And that’s what we’ll be featuring here today – It’s hot, in fact, record hot here in the Great Northwet, with a lot of smoke in the air from fires up in British Columbia – A perfect time for a cool, savory treat. In China, there is still a Cold Food Festival Day, so we’ll honor that.

There is great diversity on spring rolls around China – they reflect the regions they’re known for – Szechuan and Hunan versions are fiery, with sauces to match. Shandong, in the northeast, favors seafood. Fujian is river fish, crawfish, and fowl. Jiangsu might feature duck or pork, with richer sauces leaning toward Sweet and sour. And Cantonese boasts sauces and spice blends of dizzying complexity, and more beef than anywhere else in that big country.

Continue through Asia, and it’s a sure bet that every country has a spring roll, and will claim theirs as first and best, (and who knows, they well could be right). In Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, spring rolls are generically called popiah. They’re usually fresh, and almost always wrapped in rice paper. Peanut sauce becomes the most popular dip, and is absolutely delicious in several iterations – We’ll also be making that today. It’s in Vietnam that you find gỏi cuốn, the summer roll – These usually feature pork, along with fresh veggies, some of which may, (and aughta be), lightly pickled for a lovely interplay of tastes.

As Chinese and other Asian expats spread out, they brought their cuisine with them, of course – Once reestablished, they had to make some adjustments for local ingredients, as well as for the things they used at home and couldn’t find in their new environs. Thus, innovation is born – From Korea to the Philippines, all across Europe, into South America and the Caribbean, there are variations on the spring roll theme, many found as inspired street food.

Design and construction couldn’t be easier. Spring rolls lend themselves to last minute inspiration really well, and appropriate dipping sauces can be whipped up in short order, assuming you’ve got a decent pantry, (and you should – Hoisin sauce, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and various wrappers are now fairly ubiquitous at even small town grocery stores, and if not, readily on line.)

Have your mis ready when it's time to roll
Have your mis ready when it’s time to roll

When you’re picking ingredients, consider color and texture as much as taste – When you’re working with the ethereal rice paper wrapper as your canvas, everything is visible, and so those Asian cooking concepts of season, color, and flavor balances make perfect sense. Crunch might come from lettuce, cabbage, onion, carrot, water chestnut, daikon or salad radishes, fennel root, celeriac, celery, or cucumber, just to name a few. Pork, chicken, shellfish, or tofu adds a nice protein base, as well as a sweet/savory balance. Fresh mint, cilantro, watercress, or arugula can add an herbal note.

For cold, rice wrapped spring rolls like we’ll build, a quick pickle is a must do, for my my mind – pick two or three things that take nicely to pickling and give them 30 minutes or so in a nice bath – Onion, carrot, and radishes are great, and reward with a crisp tang that helps cut though heavier proteins and dipping sauces.

A quick pickle is a must
A quick pickle is a must

For lettuces, cabbages, and sprouts, light seasoning helps wake up fresh flavors. Since you’ve already got a couple vinegar notes, just a very light drizzle of avocado or sesame oil, salt, and pepper will do the trick. While all this might seem a bit busy, it really does make the difference between making something that tastes like you paid for it and a so-so meal – And I’ll guarantee the results will be well worth it.

Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff
Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff

When prepping for spring rolls, keep in mind that marrying flavors is the goal. Spend a little time making nice, uniform cuts of all your ingredients, and keep things small – fine dice, julienne, or matchstick cuts are best for most firm veggies, and a chiffonade for the leafy stuff.

Dice, or julien - Make everything fit in that spring roll
Dice, or julien – Make everything fit in that spring roll

Small bowls are perfect for arranging your mis en place. Have everything ready to go when you feel like it’s time to stuff some wrappers. Make your dipping sauces and pickles first, to allow flavors to marry, and your quick pickle to work its magic.

Wrappers do offer some variety, but again, if you’re going to do a cold presentation, rice paper is what you want. They’re cheap, don’t need to be refrigerated, and pretty easy to work with once you know the rules.
1. Set up a bowl of warm water big enough to immerse your rice wrappers in.
2. Set up a non-stick cutting board or two for rolling/stuffing
3. Dip a wrapper into the water for 5 seconds.
4. Pull the wrapper out of the water and let excess water drip off.
5. Lay the wrapper flat and let it sit for about 45 seconds, while it absorbs water and gets fully pliable.
6. Stuff away.

Rolls can certainly be made ahead, but when you’re blending fresh flavors and ingredients, eating them ASAP after construction pays off big time.

Now, about those dipping sauces. You can use dang near anything, and if in a pinch, good soy sauce, straight hoisin, or that awesome Yakitori sauce we made last week would all do just fine. But really, if you’re building, you should build some fresh sauce – For the most part, they’re easy and quick to make, and will reward with a much more expressive presence than anything store bought. Here are two different peanut sauce variants, one with fresh whole peanuts and one with peanut butter, as well as a simple ginger-soy version. The whole peanut version is amazing, but not as smooth as the peanut butter version, fyi.

The fresh peanut version
The fresh peanut version

Urban’s Fresh Peanut Sauce

1 Cup fresh roasted Peanuts
1/3 Cup Chicken Stock
1/3 Cup Coconut Milk
2 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Honey
2 teaspoons Tamari
2 teaspoons Fish Sauce
1 teaspoon Tamarind Paste (1 Tablespoon Lime Juice is an OK sub)
1-2 teaspoons Sriracha

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

If your peanuts are raw, roast in a heavy skillet, 350° F oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Throw everything into a food processor or blender and process until you’ve got a smooth sauce – if things are a bit too thick, add a drizzle more chicken stock until you hit desired consistency.

Taste and adjust as needed, (fish sauce, sriracha, honey).

Allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes so flavors can marry.

Will last for a good week refrigerated in an airtight container.

The smooth version of peanut sauce
The smooth version of peanut sauce

Peanut Sauce II

1 Can Coconut Milk (12 to 14 ounces, unsweetened)
1/2 Cup Chicken Stock
3/4 Cup creamy Peanut Butter (Use something natural, with a lot of oil – No cheap stuff here.)
1/4 Cup Thai Red Curry Paste
1/4 Cup Honey
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

Add all ingredients to a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, and whisk to incorporate.

When the sauce begins to simmer, reduce heat to just maintain that and cook for 3-5 minutes, whisking constantly.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl.

Allow sauce to cool and flavors to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving

Will last a week or more refrigerated in an airtight container.

 

Urban’s Ginger Soy Dipping Sauce

1/2 Cup Tamari
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
1″ piece of fresh Ginger Root
1 Green Onion
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
1 teaspoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil

Peel, trim, and mince garlic and ginger.

Peel, trim, and cut into roughly 1/4″ rings.

Combine all ingredients ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and whisk to incorporate.

Allow flavors to marry for 15-20 minutes prior to serving.

Will last a couple of weeks refrigerated in an airtight container.