Chinese five spice powder – Got it in your spice cabinet? Odds are good that you do, but they’re also good that you haven’t used it for anything other than that one Chinese recipe you tried way back when and bought the stuff for – Am I right or am I right? I’m here today to fix that, and to tell you why you should -Five Spice is good for way more than just Chinese cooking.
So, what exactly is five spice? That depends, frankly, on where in China you ask the question. This blend is relatively ubiquitous in Chinese cooking, and culinary regions from all points on the compass points lay claim to its origin. There is, however, some general agreement about the intention of that ancient founder – To provide the culinary equivalent of Unified Field Theory – one powder to rule them all – Five spice touches on sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – A blend for all things, if you will.
Now, that said, five spice is as unique as any other legendary thing. What that means is that every home cook, restaurant chef, and spice purveyor has their tried and true personal blend, and each and every one of those is the best, no questions asked. Truth be told, they’re all correct, because when you make it yours, its exactly what you want it to be – That’s the beauty of discovery and refinement. The end result of today’s exercise should be just that for y’all.
The big question, of course, is this – What are the Five Spices? Turns out, the title is a bit misleading. Take a look at the ingredients on the commercial stuff out there and you’ll find anywhere between five and ten ingredients – Interesting, yeah? That’s because ‘Five Spice’ speaks to the five flavors the blend contains – Sweet, sour, bitter, heat, and salty – Cover those, and the number of ingredients used to achieve it is open for interpretation.
The generally recognized standard however, is star anise, clove, Chinese cinnamon (Cassia), Szechuan pepper, and fennel seed, but again, you might also find regular cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, licorice, anise, turmeric, black pepper, sea salt, and mandarin orange peel as well. There’s nothing wrong with all that, frankly, though as with all things in discovery, it’s best to go to the classic roots first, and then branch out to make it yours.
For us here in the U.S., the blend has an exotic feel to it that can be a real treat for breaking up the ol’ routine. The combination of what Chinese culinary tradition refers to as hot (cinnamon and Szechuan pepper), and cold (fennel and clove), tastes does a really cool double duty with meats, especially fatty stuff – It highlights richness as it cuts through the fat – A neat trick, that.
If you have Asian grocers in your area, check them out and see if they make their own blends – If not, they’ll likely have a favorite that they sell – Diving into those is like touring the regions and towns folks come from – You’ll get a different swing on things from each one.
So, what exactly would you use this stuff on when you whip it out? The quick answer is that five spice is tailor made for proteins – Beef, pork, and poultry will all shine, (and frankly, you can’t make great char sui pork without it), as will tofu, and beans. For dang near anything you’re going to grill, barbecue, or smoke, it makes a fantastic rub. Five spice does great in flour, starch, or bread crumb coatings for fried foods, too. And frankly, there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t go great with savory eggs and veggies. And believe it or not, it’s great for baking too – Add it to a savory scone, pancake, or waffle recipe, for instance.
A note of caution for using five spice on things other than fatty meats – The blend can overpower a recipe really quickly, so a little bit goes a long way. The blend does best when it has some time to work, so employing it in marinades and rubs works best.
The gist of all this is that while five spice is a necessity for many Chinese dishes, it’s great to think outside the box and try it with other stuff as well – It’s easy enough to add a dab to a sample of something you’re cooking – A great way to expand your horizons. This is a blend that, while fundamentally simple, belies that label with a truly fascinating and complex palette of flavors.
Here’s a basic recipe to get you started – Again, use it as a springboard to tailor your own custom blend. As with all herbs and spices, freshness and quality are critical. Harkening back to that bottle you’ve got in your cabinet, chances are good it’s old, and maybe not the best stuff you could find, right? So, go to a known, high quality purveyor like World Spice, Penzey’s, or Penderey’s and buy your stuff there – They really truly don’t cost more than the junk in most stores, and the quality is far superior. Finally, it’s always a good idea to buy whole spices when available as well – They’ll stay fresher longer.
If you’ve ever lived in the southern part of the U.S.A., then you’ve likely experienced the tradition of eating black-eyed peas, (AKA, Hoppin’ John), on New Year’s Day – Doing so is believed to be not only a harbinger of prosperity in the new year, but a pretty decent hangover cure as well. Other anointed foods for New Years include pork, corned beef and cabbage, whole fish, and even ring shaped eats.
Here at UrbanMonique, we went to bed quite early on New Year’s Eve, but we still like to hedge our bets. As such, we decided it was a perfect night for M’s stunningly delicious split pea soup. That decision was made all the easier by the fact that we had leftover ham from Christmas, (including a gorgeous bone), and some amazing pea stock we froze back in the summer after harvesting snap peas from the garden. Split pea soup kinda gets a bad rap for the same reason Brussels sprouts do – Lackluster cooking, or overcooking, leads to less than stellar results – We’re here to shatter that reputation.
I hail from New England, where split pea soup has always been quite popular. Legend has it this dish was introduced to the region by southward migrating Québécois, but the ubiquity of split peas throughout many cultures may dispel that. Cultivars of Pisum sativum have been favored by humans for millennia – Romans and Greeks were growing them as far back as 500 B.C.E. – Given their propensity for far flung travel and conquest, it’s a safe bet they got them from somebody else. And in any age before modern food preservation, it’s a sure thing that drying peas was standard practice, as it still is today.
Harkening back to my comment about lackluster versions of split pea soup, it’s no surprise, frankly, when we recall the old rhyme, ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.’ Lets face it, if that was good eating, we’d all still be doing it. Starting out with high quality, fresh ingredients will quickly dispel that nightmarish vision. Your journey toward that end must start with the peas themselves. Many of us have a bag of the little green guys in our pantry, straight from the store – It’s just as likely that said bag of peas has been in your pantry since the Pleistocene era too, right? If so, that’s a problem right off the bat. Dried peas, beans, etc will last a very long time, if stored properly, but left in the original plastic bag and tossed onto a shelf in the pantry doesn’t qualify as ‘proper’. The main adversary for split peas is oxygen, and that’s the case for pretty much all legumes, pulses, etc. The solution is a decent quality, air tight container – With those in use, you can easily get 3 to 5 years of storage, and if you add an oxygen absorber, like Oxy-Sorb, which is specifically made for the purpose, you ou’ll easily extend your shelf life to 10 years or more. Oxy-Sorb is great stuff, cheap, and readily available, by the way – A 100 pack costs about ten bucks, delivered from numerous online sources, and big chain grocery stores sell it as well – Same goes for decent quality food storage vessels, (and frankly, you’d be hard pressed to do better than quart, half gallon, or gallon mason jars for that job.)
As with all great soups and stews, great split pea soup depends on carefully chosen components and a specific process of assembly. It is a simple dish, but nonetheless, there are definitive steps that need to be followed. As always, this begins with the essentials, (other than peas, of course) – That’s good ham with a nice, big bone, fresh aromatics, stock, and seasoning. As for the latter, all too often what’s used for split pea soup is what’s suggested on the plastic bag they come in, AKA, water. While water sure works, stock is so much better, and is key to great soup.
Vegetable or chicken stock will work great, and if you’ve been keeping up with class, then you’ve taken opportunities to make and freeze stock along the way. As mentioned previously, back in July we had a bumper crop of snap peas, and took steps to harvest and preserve those – In so doing, the inspiration for pea stock hit me and we made some – It was and is incredible stuff – a lovely translucent green, with a scent redolent of fresh peas, even when defrosted some six months later – There’s a testimonial to why we freeze, dry, can, or otherwise preserve great home grown food, if ever there was one, (That doesn’t mean you need to have matched us overachievers – Use what you’ve got – Homemade preferred, but store bought is just fine.)
And while we’re talking homemade, if and when you get a nice bone, never, ever throw it out. Sure, your critters will love ’em, but your house made stocks and broths will love ’em even more. As for aromatics – It’s a safe bet that in too many home kitchens, the carrots, onion, garlic, celery and the like might be a bit long in the tooth by the time you get around to using them – In a word, don’t do that. The French have it right when they go to the market almost daily – If it’s worth making and eating, it’s worth fresh ingredients – Don’t buy the big bags of bulk carrots, onions, etc – Go to the market frequently, and poke, prod, smell, and look when you shop – Reject the rubbery, the off colored, or too soft, and carefully pick fresh stuff – That is one of the real joys of shopping, so take advantage.
And finally, there’s seasoning. I’ve said this before and will again – If you’re buying herbs and spices from the grocery store, you’re missing out. If you’re using spices from a cute little revolving wheel thingy, and the spices came with that, and you got it when you got married, you’re fired. Herbs and spices have very bit as much a shelf life as other foods, and less so than some – they’re good for 6 months or so, if they’ve been prepared and stored properly. If your wheel o’ spices is out where sunlight hits it on a regular basis, your stuff is toast and needs to be replaced. If it’s not from a high quality source, like World Spice, Penzeys, Pendereys, to name just a few, you’ve no guarantee that what your buying is up to snuff – And finally, never use my sainted Father’s wine buying plan when it comes to spice – The more you get for less dough is not a successful strategy.
So, with all that, here’s the scoop.
M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup
4 Cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock
2 Cups Water
2 Cups (about 1/2 pound), Ham
1 nice big Ham Bone
1 Pound dried Split Peas
2 large Carrots
3 stalks Celery
2 Tablespoons chopped Shallot
3 cloves Garlic
1-2 Tablespoons Parsely
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red Chile
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil.
In a stock pot over medium high heat, combine water, stock and the ham bone. When the stock begins to boil, reduce heat until its barely maintaining a simmer. Allow the stock and bone to simmer for 60 minutes.
Rough chop ham, cut carrots into half-rounds about 1/4″ thick, chop celery, dice shallot and mince garlic.
Zest lemon, cut in half.
Place peas in a single mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water, checking for non-food detritus.
In a soup pot over medium heat, add oil and heat through. Add carrot, celery, and shallot. Sauté until the shallot begins to turn translucent.
Remove Bone from stock and allow to cool, then give it to your dawg.
Add stock, water, ham, and split peas to soup pot with aromatics over medium heat. Stir to incorporate. When the soup starts to boil, reduce heat to barely maintain a slow simmer. Simmer soup for 1-2 hours, until the split peas are where you like them – just slightly al dente is the sweet spot.
Add parsley, lemon thyme, a tablespoon of lemon zest, pepper, Chile, and salt. Stir to incorporate and taste, adjust seasoning as desired. Allow the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes.
Serve nice and hot, garnished with a little more fresh lemon zest and shot or two of hot sauce if you like such things. A dollop of fresh sour cream doesn’t suck, either.
Serve with crusty bread and a glass of decent Zinfandel, and you’re in hog heaven.
If you’re thinking Caribbean and spicy, then truth be told, you’re thinking about Jamaican jerk seasoning. While probably every island claims some variation on the theme, this is arguably the root of that wonderful recipe tree. The combination of chile heat, with a spice mélange often only associated with deserts makes for an unforgettable taste treat.
There are dry and wet variants of the style; the wet marinades and an oven bake, like the one we’ll do here, add a greater depth of flavor to your dish. Dry rubs are great too, and especially lend themselves well to grilling. You can use either variety on chicken, beef, pork and fish. For my mind, chicken is the quintessential jerk dish, so that’s what we’ll do here.
Though it may seem like there are a lot of ingredients, don’t get intimidated; this is a pretty fast process and well worth the effort. You should plan on allowing at least 3 hours for marinating, though you certainly can let things sit overnight and should whenever you have the chance.
Note the great range of potential heat indicated in the recipe – I think you need at least two habaneros to get the heart correct for this stuff, but some folks like or require far more to float their boat. If you’re a neophyte, start conservative – While habaneros aren’t the hottest thing out there, they’re plenty potent enough to really sear you if you’re not ready to handle them.
Jenuine Jamaican Jerk Chicken
+/- 3 pound whole chicken
2 Fresh Limes
3-6 Fresh Green Onions, rough chopped
2-4 cloves Fresh Garlic, rough chopped
2-? Fresh Habanero Chiles, rough chopped
¼ Cup Malt Vinegar
¼ Cup Dark Rum
1 Tablespoon Allspice
1 teaspoon Black Pepper
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
1 teaspoon Ginger
1 teaspoon Nutmeg
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon dark brown Sugar
1 Tablespoon Thyme
½ Cup Tomato Ketchup
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
Add rum and a couple of tablespoons of water to a sauté pan over medium-high heat and simmer until the alcohol is burned off.
If any of your spices are whole, combine them and run them through a spice grinder until evenly blended.
Pour rum into a blender along with the vinegar, onions, garlic, habaneras, allspice, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt, sugar, and thyme. Squeeze the juice from both limes in as well.
Blend thoroughly until you have a nice, smooth consistency.
Take 2 Tablespoons of the seasoning blend and transfer to a small glass bowl. Add the ketchup and soy sauce and blend thoroughly. Cover and set aside until you’re ready to serve.
Cut up chickens into appropriate cooking size, (Quarters or better as you please).
Place chicken in a glass dish or bowl, (Gallon ziplocks will do if you don’t have a decent sized glass dish), and pour the jerk marinade in. Thoroughly coat the chicken on all sides with the marinade, massaging it in so it covers completely. Cover the container and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Remove chicken from marinade but leave a nice coating on each piece. Cook to an internal temperature of 165° F, remove from oven and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve with rice and black beans, Johnny cake, a fresh mango salsa, or a nice cole slaw, with plenty of ice cold Red Stripe!
Bill Penzey is a genuinely good guy, and he runs a genuinely good company, Penzeys Spices.
Now, I’m the kind of person who demands great quality from the companies I do business with, and when it comes to herbs and spices, I simply won’t screw around – And neither should you. There are three outfits I love and buy from regularly – Penzeys, World Spice, and Butcher & Packer.
Personally, my criterion for being a regular goes beyond the quality of the goods – It also encompasses the quality of the company and the people who run it. All three of the companies I referenced herein are good ones that treat their people well.
And in these truly turbulent times, there’s one of the three who stands head and shoulders above the rest, for taking a stand – A stand for what’s right, and very pointedly, a stand against what’s wrong.
That outfit is Bill Penzeys, and as you’ll see below, he’s not afraid to address big ticket issues, or to call out those who need to be called out. Believe you me, he’s taken some heat for it – His company has been targeted by the right for boycotting, and it’s had some impact on them. Fortunately, as he notes below, there are more good folks who’ve come to support him than there are boycotters, but a bunch more won’t hurt any.
if you find yourself of a like mind, and in need of some great herbs and spices, head over to their site, (or see if they’ve got a store near you, and head on in there). Buy some stuff from them, and if you like it, (which you will), repeat said process regularly. Read what he says here, and subscribe to his newsletter. Show good people and businesses that others of like mind hear, agree, and support their efforts – It’s what good people do in trying times.
Monday is Captain Boycott’s Birthday. Celebrate with
Free Shipping with just $20 in spending instead of $30
$1 Pie Spice & Garlic—$2 Sandwich & Italian Herb—
What if we no longer turned a blind eye to those corporations that lobby and buy politicians to bulldoze the public good for their own gain? In Florida and across the nation, young people are leading the way. What if we said enough is enough and followed their lead?
Captain Boycott’s birthday is this Monday, March 12. History has its lessons and it’s looking more and more like we are on the way to relearning one of them. But it’s a good one. In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and in the incredible bravery of its students since, there is real hope that the corporations that lobby and buy politicians, and the politicians that are willing to be purchased, will no longer be able to escape the consequences of their actions.
Older generations have, for some reason, been more comfortable looking the other way as the same industries time and again have used unlimited political spending and lobbying to make windfall profits off the destruction of the public good. These kids are having none of this. What they’ve already achieved is huge, but if history is any indicator, it’s in where all this is going next that the real hope for lasting change lives.
The lesson of Captain Boycott’s day, and why his name is a word we all know, is that the advantages of wealth and privilege are not limitless. In the times where those who already have so much use their advantages not to help those less privileged, but to take ever more for themselves, inevitably a tipping point gets reached. At some point the people come together and say enough is enough. In the actions of the students challenging the NRA, and the nation’s support of the students, there are all the signs that we are once again arriving at this tipping point.
Now is the time to support this new generation and join with them in taking on those corporations that are anything but good citizens, and the politicians who willingly accept their payments. Please let them know you admire their strength to walk out this coming Wednesday the 14th at 10:00am for 17 minutes in remembrance of those lives taken one month before. And if possible, march with them March 24 in Washington and in cities across the country. Now’s the time to turn the tide. Help them seize the opportunity.
What comes next may well be what future historians will call “exciting times.” The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have already exposed just how precarious the NRA’s power is, and just how vulnerable the politicians are who’ve accepted the NRA’s money. But this might just be the tip of the iceberg. In the wake of the Citizens United ruling that made unlimited corporate spending in politics legal, we’ve given a free pass to the corporations doing that spending. What if this is the end of that free pass?
What if this is a wake-up call to all those planning this very type of spending in the upcoming midterm elections that, just like the NRA, you too will no longer be allowed to escape the responsibility for your actions? Just like in Captain Boycott’s time, those who have mistaken wealth and connections for power could well be in for a shock at just how fast what they had perceived as power evaporates, and the wealth with it too, when the people decide enough is enough and that the corruption has to go.
So we are celebrating and drawing attention to the Captain’s birthday with Free Shipping with just $20 in spending rather than the usual $30, and really good prices on four great Spices. Of course we too have been facing our own boycott for nearly a year and a half now. It’s had its impact, but it’s going the wrong direction, and that makes it a lot less effective than the original boycott, and the ones that I suspect all the corporations funding the Republican Party will soon be facing.
At the heart of it, we are being boycotted for calling out those promoting inequality. The good thing is that, in America, being for equality still brings in more people than it sends away. Of course it is only through your word of mouth that new people are replacing those who have at least temporarily left. We are greatly appreciative of that. With this in mind, each of the four Spices we are featuring at just a buck or two are great to pick up for yourself, but each also makes a great introduction to Penzeys for anyone you think would appreciate what we do. So please, pick up a few extras to share.
Our Granulated Garlic is a joy. No bitterness, just light, bright Garlic pleasure. Good stuff. And at just $1, rather than the usual $3.45, now’s the time to pick up a few extra for the Garlic lovers in your life. There’s rumors too that Garlic drives away NRA spokespeople, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. To see our Garlic click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/granulated-garlic-powder/c-24/p-1000/pd-s
Italian Herb earned its place among history’s great Spice blends a long time ago. And with just how good our Oregano, Basil, Marjoram, Rosemary and Thyme are, they make this blend a gift for the ages. Salads, pasta, chicken, fish, steak, burgers and pizza so easily take on the flavor of greatness with just a couple of shakes. So Simple. So Tasty. And just $2. For Italian Herb click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/italian-herb-mix/c-24/p-183/pd-s
Sandwich Sprinkle is making lunch memorable across this great country. As Americans, we really do love sandwiches, and Sandwich Sprinkle makes every sandwich even more lovable. And Versatile. There are those who call it Salad Sprinkle and it makes for tasty Garlic bread/croutons, too. Don’t miss this chance to give it a try for only 2 bucks. To learn more about Sandwich Sprinkle click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/sandwich-sprinkle/c-24/p-594/pd-s
And please don’t forget Pi day, March 14 (3.14), is a day to celebrate math, science, and all those who spend their lives working to bring us the honest information we need to understand the real world around us. And a good time for Pie, too. Pie Spice is a Cinnamon-rich blend great for Pie, but equally at home in cookies, cakes, French toast, hot or cold cereal, and even sprinkled over a cup of coffee. And at just $1 per jar, rather than the usual $3.95, it is a great introduction to everything we are about. Please pass out a few.
To see our Pie Spice just click this link: https://www.penzeys.com/online-catalog/pie-spice/c-24/p-3079/pd-s
No coupons or codes are needed for any of these great prices either in our stores or online at penzeys.com. Just remember that the free shipping with just $20 in spending expires at midnight Pacific time on Monday March 12, so as they say, “act now.”
Thanks for your support,
And as always, please like our page and, even more importantly, share this post with those you think would appreciate it. We don’t have free shipping with just $20 spending that often, and it really does help for those placing a first order to give us a try. — Thanks again.
And I just have to say the art of these new up-and-coming post-millennial Penzeys brings me happiness. Love that is not passive at all but with horns and a mischievous grin. And those eyebrows! This is the Love with the strength to change the world.
I have a favorite kitchen mantra that goes like this – Simple is always good, but not always easy. The implications are rife in that phrase – Simple is always good, but our inclinations sometimes work against it. And then as stated, simple just isn’t always easy, in fact sometimes it’s deceptively hard. Yet when we bow to the sublime, amazing things can happen. Salt potatoes are such a thing. Chances are you’ve never had them, and if you have, you’ve been given an origin story for the dish. It’s safe bet they’re far older than you were lead to believe, and more widely travelled to boot.
The potato, (most often Solanum tuberosum), is another gift from the Andes, specifically southern Peru and northwest Bolivia, where it was first domesticated somewhere around 8000 to 5000 BC – Yes, that means roughly 7000 to 10,000 years ago. Brought to Europe in the mid 1500s by, (yup, you guessed it), those marauding Spaniards, the spud is now cultivated worldwide, though of the roughly 5,000 varieties known around the globe, over 3,000 are still found in the Andes – Think about that the next time you’re picking between russet, gold, or reds at the store. If ever there was a crop begging to be expanded in your garden, this is it.
Initially, Europe wasn’t crazy about the potato, especially, and maybe most strangely, in the northern climes where potatoes do quite well. Part of the reticence may lie in their Solanaceae family roots, which includes some pretty dangerous plants, (and the leaves and green skins of potatoes exposed to light.) Over time, the nutritional punch made its way through the naysayers, and by the 1800s, potatoes were in heavy cultivation throughout most of Europe. A raw potato is 80% water, followed by 16% carbs, and about 4% protein, and are rich in vitamin B and C. While cooking degrades some of the nutrient value, they’re still a relatively good bang for the buck, which is why they’re the worlds forth largest food crop – And over 68% of those grown are eaten directly by humans, to the tune of an average of 72 pounds annually. These days, over 37% of world production happens in China and India.
And of all the myriad ways to cook a potato, who’d have thought to just boil them in brine? Turns out, pretty much everybody, although some lay heavier claims than others. Look up salt potatoes, and in this country, most of what you’ll find will claim that they were invented in Syracuse, New York. Now, that’s simply not true, but there is a reason that one of these far flung claims resides there – Syracuse was a major salt production and shipping center in the 19th century.
In the fall of 1825, the last section of the Erie Canal was completed. Running east to west, the Erie connected to the north-south running Oswego canal at a little town called Syracuse. With canals running right through town, Syracuse picked up the moniker as the American Venice. The Erie Canal had been built to move Onondaga Salt to New York City and the world, and for a while, it worked really well. As fate would have it, bunch of those old Salt workers were Irish, and they truly loved their potatoes, and regularly cooked those and corn in brine, but they didn’t invent the dish.
Who did remains shrouded in mystery, but it’s a good guess it started down in South America. There, among many local versions, you’ll find papas saladas, that hail from, of course, another salt mining town. In the Canary Islands, they’re papas arrugadas, (which we mentioned in our Mojo post), and in the Guérande salt producing region of France, they’re patate cuit au sel. And of course there’s many more – Chances are very good you’ll find a version in every country, and many will claim origination – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
If you’ve never tried salt potatoes, trust me when I tell you it’s time. They’re a perfect summer accompaniment to grilled meats and veggies, and they’re delicious enough to stand alone. While the method and ingredients couldn’t be simpler, there is a bit of slightly complex chemistry going on under the hood of this one.
Right off hand, it’s not outrageous to question how good a potato boiled in brine will taste. The assumption is that way too much salt will get into that spud, making for an unpleasant, out of balance experience. Fortunately, that’s not what happens. Here’s the magic – One, cooking in a brine solution raises the boiling point higher than plain old water, (just as it lowers the freezing point when making ice cream), and two, the thin salt crust that forms on the spuds acts as a barrier, keep excess salt and water out. As a result, the potatoes effectively steam in their own skins, and you only end up with that thin layer of crystallized salt on the outside of the skins. That leads to an amazingly fluffy spud with a super tasty skin, just right for dipping in melted butter, gribiche, mojo, sauce diable, or chimichurri. As I mentioned, they’re stunningly good, good enough to eat as a meal, with little bowls of this and that to add as you please.
There are slightly different cooking methods around the globe – Some boil in brine and drain, (The Syracuse method), others boil the brine completely away with the spuds still in the pan, (I prefer the latter method.) They’re all worth trying, but this one will set you well for your first endeavor. As with all simple dishes, quality and freshness count – Freshly dug, local spuds from a farmers market deserve this dish – Old, soft, mealy, bulk spuds do not. Same goes for salt – This is the time to use something good – Sel de mere, Bolivian Sunrise, Himalayan pink, or Maldon – Whatever the unique signature the salt bears will play out beautifully. All salts do not have equal volume so you’ll be best served by weighing it out.
Salt Crusted Potatoes
1 Pound fresh new or fingerling potatoes, (You want something in the 1″ to 2″ range, and pretty uniform in size)
1 Ounce really good Salt.
In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, add potatoes, salt, and just enough water to cover the spuds.
Once you reach a boil, reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook potatoes until fork tender, about 20 minutes.
Pour off all but about a half inch of water. Put the pot back on the burner and turn heat to high.
Use a wooden spoon to roll spuds through the remaining brine as it begins to boil off. You’ll see the salt crystalizing on your spuds as this occurs – It’ll take a few minutes for the brine to disappear.
Continue gently rolling the spuds in the dry pan for another couple of minutes, until the salt crust evenly coats each potato and the skins start to get slinky wrinkly.
Remove from heat to a serving bowl and serve promptly.
Noticed the other day that ribs are big in the stores, now that summer has officially begun. Seems like a good time to offer a fave take on those bad boys. Now first off, I admit here and now that M does ribs better than I do in terms of process, so I’ll just synthesize her method and my seasoning.
So why are ribs so dang tasty; there’s not much there, so what’s the secret? In a word, bones; bones and some marrow influence, too. Little cuts of meat attached to the stuff that we use to make amazing stocks, soups, stews, and reductions from, that’s the ticket. When cooked low and slow, the influence of the bones and marrow make their presence known in a way nothing else can really emulate.
Do you know your ribs? All of ’em? Here’s a quick run down on the variations you’ll find out there.
Or spare ribs, either spelling works, and either way, it always means pork, period. Spareribs are cut from the side or belly. Nowadays, they’re usually sold trimmed and ready to go, but you still may find them offered with the brisket bone attached; if you get them that way, just cut the bone out and save it along with the rest for making stock. Spareribs may or may not have the skirt attached, (a thin flap of meat that runs along the meaty side). If the skirt is there, you’ve got St. Louis style ribs, and if it’s trimmed off, you’ve got Kansas City style. If you ever wondered what those two terms were all about but were afraid to ask, you may now consider yourself enlightened. If you’re serving spareribs as an appetizer, two ribs per person will do the trick; a half rack, (six ribs), is a decent entrée portion.
Baby Back Ribs
Arguably the most popular pork rib variety, baby backs are less meaty than many other styles, but tend to be leaner than their bigger cousins as well. Baby backs are, in fact, cut from the back of the rib cage. They tend to include a high proportion of loin meat, which explains their lean and tender nature. Reasonable portions for baby backs are 3 ribs per as an appetizer, or a half slab entrée.
Country Style Ribs
This cut is a bit of a misnomer. Cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin, this meatiest variant of the rib family doesn’t really include ribs at all. You can often find this cut in single portion packages, as well the equivalent of a half or full slab; they’re perfect for those who want to use a knife and fork instead of getting all handsy with their meal. Country ribs can be pretty fatty and may need some trimming prior to cooking. Portion sizes are one apiece for appetizer, two as an entrée.
Beef Back Ribs
These big ribs come from the back of the loin; they’re the beef version of baby backs. Meatier than pork ribs, they contain five or six bones per slab. That said, while the bones are big, they’re not super meaty. They will, however, be plenty tasty if given a good rub and lightly smoked. Portions are two per as an appetizer and five or six as an entrée.
Beef Short Ribs
This cut used to be a tremendous bargain, until every chef in the world decided to make them popular. Now, they can often be pricier than they’re worth – If you see other cuts for much less, buy those. Short ribs come from the bottom end of the rib cage, or plate cut. Short ribs are not a tender cut and really shouldn’t be grilled or barbecued; they need low and slow braising or smoking to really shine. The cut can be fatty, so trim as needed before you cook. A quarter pound appetizer and half pound entrée will do the trick.
A full rack of lamb contains eight ribs. The ribs themselves are really quite skimpy, so the chop is typically left attached;you’ll find them offered as rib chops or as a whole rack. The racks are a fairly famous cut and make a great roast. Fancy stuff has been done with these for many moons, like cutting the rack into 3-3-2 and tying them tips up as a crown roast, or trimming the meat at the tips of the chops back to the bone, which is the famous French chop or rack. A double French rack is two racks tied tips up back to back. If you’re not familiar working with the lamb rack cut, make sure to ask if the chine, (backbone), between the ribs has been cut, so that the roast is easy to carve. If you’ve not cooked a lot of lamb before, be aware that it’s usually quite a bit gamier than beef and pork. The heart of the gamy flavor is fat, so trim appropriately if you’re not comfortable with that. Soaking lamb in buttermilk for at least 2 hours and as much as overnight will help a lot to tame the game and keep them moist and juicy. While you can certainly cook and serve single rib chops, you’ll get a much juicier result if you leave them as doubles; you can then cut them into singles for an appetizer and leave them doubled as an entrée.
Then there’s game; I’ve personally had and cooked venison, elk, boar, buffalo, bear and ostrich. The first thing to remember with game ribs is to use them; I don’t know how many hunters and cooks I’ve known who don’t even consider this, but we all should. First off, if you harvest, you’ve got the responsibility not to waste, and that’s a biggy. Seconly, if you love game, ribs can and should be a signature taste of the beastie. As with lamb, game ribs can be gamy, so trim the fat, if any, and marinate. Buttermilk works great here, but wine and herb, or a nice flavorful brine will shine as well. Keeping in mind that fleet-footed game like deer and elk are quite lean to begin with, so marinating will do a lot to keep things tender and juicy.
Here’s a wet rub and BBQ sauce that will go great with any of the above.
This recipe will serve for a couple of racks of ribs.
We’ll do a low and slow cook with a grilled finish for knockout flavor.
2 Tablespoons extra virgin Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Honey or Agave Nectar
2 Tablespoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 Tablespoon cracked black Pepper
1 teaspoon Onion powder
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
3-4 Shots Tabasco or dried Chile Powder
Optional: 1 teaspoon Smoke Powder
Preheat oven to 225° F.
Rub ribs generously with the olive oil.
In a mixing bowl, combine the honey, paprika, pepper, onion powder, garlic and Tabasco or chile powder, and the smoke powder if you’re using that. Rub evenly over the ribs, taking time to work it on to all surfaces.
Wrap racks, meaty side down, in a large piece of metal foil (The wide, heavy duty stuff does best; if you’ve got light weight stuff, double it). Seal the edges of foil with a double fold.
Cooking Stage 1, oven low and slow.
Cook smaller, more delicate ribs like baby backs for three and a half hours; the bigger ones can go four hours.
Preheat grill on high, then reduce heat to low with lid open. If you’re just using your oven, leave it at 225° F.
Remove ribs from oven and drain off any excess drippings. Carefully flip ribs over to bone side down, using a big grilling spatula or two smaller ones. Your ribs should be at the pint where they’re starting to fall off the bone, so be gentle.
Trim the foil back to so you’ve got a baking sheet kind of affair, with a 3/4″ inch lip of rolled foil all the way around the ribs, to catch juices and keep the sauce in place for the remainder of the cooking.
Apply an even, thick layer of sauce to the meat side with a basting brush.
Cooking Stage 2, sauced and grilled, (or not)
Transfer ribs to the grill if you’re going that route.
Cook on low heat, with the lid down, for 20 to 30 minutes more.
If you’re using the oven for the whole job, cook uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes more.
Remove from oven and serve promptly with more sauce, house made potato salad, and baked beans.
A nice local Pilsner, Lager or dry white wine is the perfect accompaniment, refreshing your pallet and cutting through the fat for that next juicy rib.
Try this amazing cranberry powered sauce; folks are gonna make yummy noises and ask “what IS that?” in a good way…
Eben’s Cranberry BBQ Sauce
1 bag Cranberries
1 Cup Sweet Onion
1 bottle Porter or Stout
1 large Navel Orange
1/2 Cup dry Red Wine
1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 Cup Honey or Agave Nectar
1/3 Cup Worcestershire Sauce
1/3 Cup Soy Sauce
2 cloves Garlic
Peel and dice onion, peel and mince garlic. Zest and juice the orange.
Use a nice, fresh local Porter or Stout.
Throw everybody into a large stainless steel sauce pan over medium high heat and blend well.
As soon as the cranberries start to pop, reduce heat to achieve a nice, steady simmer. Allow to simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Process sauce with an immersion blender, or carefully transfer to a blender, if that’s what you’ve got. Be very careful if you use a blender; process in batches and watch out for the hot sauce. Process until the sauce is uniform and smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, AKA. A motor boat, go buy yourself one for Christmas, they’re indispensable.
If you like your sauce a bit chunkier, as we do, you’re done; if you like it smoother, run the sauce through a strainer once.
Transfer to a glass bowl or jar and refrigerate for at least 4 hours prior to use, to allow the flavors to marry and the sauce to finish thickening.
And remember, save those piles of bones for making pork or beef stock; they’re way too good to toss!
Say the words, ‘Berber food,’ here in the States, and you’ll get many a blank stare. That unfamiliarity isn’t entirely unwarranted. The Amazigh, AKA Berber, people are an ethnic group from North Africa, who today live predominantly in the countries that encompass the top of that continent, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. There are robust Berber expat communities in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands,and Canada, which means their influence and food has spread, but here in the U.S.A., not so much. It’s time, therefore, for Berbere and Berber Stew.
Berber cuisine is ancient, in the truest sense of the word. Layered, complex, spicy, and delightfully sophisticated, it has changed very little over thousands of years. That said, it’s difficult to pin down, because it is so closely tied to the terroir of each Berber population. To the Zayanes, who live around the Atlas Mountains of central Morocco, it’s game, sheep’s milk, goat cheese, butter, corn, barley, honey, and butter. To a Tunisian or Algerian Berber, its more likely tajine, couscous, mergeuz, Harrisa, or labladi. In any iteration, it’s amazing food, rich, cultured, and redolent of its past. While we might not be familiar with the Berbers, history is – They’ve inhabited the Maghreb since 10,000 BC, and they’ve been cooking stunningly good food ever since.
Certainly there are Berber dishes we know – Those Tunisian and Algerian goodies I mentioned above are fairly ubiquitous – Couscous, Mergeuz, and Tajines can be found much more often than they would have even a decade ago. There’s far more that is common to us, we’ve just not associated the root cuisine until recently. For instance, it’s arguable that specialized ovens designed for roasting whole critters originated with the Berbers – Mechoui, whole lamb barbecue, has branched out here in techniques from the Cuban cana china, to pit barbecue. Even the meat pie or pastie has ancient Berber roots in the sublime pastilla. Our only foray here at UrbanMonique into Berber cuisine came with the post on Moghrabia, which was sublimely delicious, and a ball to discover. Yet that dish didn’t quite hit the mark for what I feel should have been done for a first Berber post – It didn’t include the amazing namesake spice blend, Berbere. I aim to rectify that herein.
Berbere is a word shared by Amharic and Tigrinya speakers, both of which are Semitic languages common to Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of the African Horn. Like so many signature blends, it’s hard to pin a definitive version – Everybody makes one, and theirs is best. Generally, the blend will include heat from chiles, with some combination of ginger, cardamom, fenugreek, and nutmeg/clove/cinnamon. Keep in mind that, back in the days of the silk and spice roads, this is where many of these rare delights came from, and they are still grown and used heavily, along with some very localized specialties. My favorite local spice is Long Pepper, which you can get quite easily these days – It has notable more depth and heat than Black Pepper, with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. Perhaps the most elusive of those local spices is Korarima, AKA Ethiopian, or false cardamom. That ethereal stuff is ubiquitous in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines, and locals will tell you that if you really want to cook authentic Berber food, no other cardamom will do.
The cardamoms hail from the ginger family, most from either the elettaria or amomum genera. The elettaria branch are the green, or true cardamoms, and the amomum the black, brown, white and red varieties. Korarima, Aframomum corrorima, is neither, hence the slight as ‘false’ cardamom. Korarima is a ginger family member as well, used not only in food, but as herbal remedy and tonic, and even blended with coffee. That’s as it should be, for the plants large brown pods grow well in coffee country. They’re harvested and then dried over open fires, which imparts a hint of sweet smoke to the grains. Locals say that any other cardamom just doesn’t quite cut it for Berbere. While I’ll say that, if you’re a spice nut like I am, you should try this stuff, be prepared – An ounce and a half will set you back about $15 plus postage for the good stuff. I’ll not disagree with the experts, although it’s hard to say exactly what makes Korarima different from other cardamoms – to me, it’s much more subtle and complex a flavor profile than any other version I’ve tried, less medicinal and warmer – Much like Long Pepper is a whole ‘nuther beast from Tellicherry. All that said, you certainly can make Berbere with any cardamom you have or like, and it’ll come out fine – Just don’t serve it to your Berber pals…
So, here’s our take on Berbere. It’s a heady mix of heat, warm, smoky, and herbal notes that goes great with dang near anything – Seriously, from scrambled eggs, to chicken, fish, beef, pork, tofu, and dang near any veggie you can name, it’s amazing stuff. And of course it’ll power the stew we’ll do next as well. This recipe will make about 1/3 Cup of spice blend, which will go quite a long way. You should know that true Berber spice blends are often pretty fiery, and this is no exception, (If you’ve ever tried or made genuine Harissa, you know I ain’t kiddin’). As such, you can reduce the chile volume accordingly, or use milder chiles if you prefer things a bit tamer. There are a myriad of versions of this blend, wet and dry, and they’re all fabulous – Take some time to poke around online and find some more to try, or even better, use this as a springboard to forge your own.
Berbere a la UrbanMonique
2-3 Tablespoons ground hot Chile Powder, (note – Not chili powder, just straight hot chiles!)
1 1/2 Tablespoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 Tablespoon Long Pepper
1 Tablespoon fine ground Sea Salt
1 teaspoon whole Coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Ethiopian Cardamom seed, (Sub Black Cardamom if you wish)
1/2 teaspoon whole Fenugreek seed
1/4 teaspoon True Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg
This recipe really wants you using whole spices, (which you aughta be doing whenever possible, anyway,) If you don’t have whole, forego the roasting step.
In a sauté pan over medium heat, add cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, and long pepper. Dry roast, stirring gently, until fragrant, about 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a spice grinder and process to a uniform powder.
Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl and combine thorough. Run the blend through a single mesh strainer if you like it uniform, thee wise, you can leave it rustic.
Store in an airtight glass jar, away from heat and sunlight. Will last for a couple of months if so stored.
Berber stew is a perfect intro to the joy that is North African cuisine. Simple on the surface, but with a finished taste that displays amazing depth and complexity, it’s a joy to make and eat. While you wouldn’t necessarily require the long cooking time with a protein switch, this would go equally well with chicken, pork, or even firm tofu. That said, the low and slow cooking of this dish will drive you nuts – Incredible smells for hours on end – Guaranteed you’ll be hungry when it’s done!
The truest form of this dish requires ghee, clarified butter, which I didn’t have when I decided to make it. Use ghee if you’ve got it, but if not, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than the rich, buttery notes avocado oil imparts. This recipe will feed four quite well.
Berber Beef Stew
1 Pound Stew Beef
2 Cups Stock, (Chicken, Beef, or Veggie)
1 small Sweet Onion
1 14 oz can crushed Tomatoes
2 cloves fresh Garlic
1-2 Tablespoons Berbere Spice Blend
2-3 Tablespoons Ghee or Avocado Oil
1-2 Tablespoons Wondra Flour
Trim stew meat to 1/2″ cubes.
Peel and trim onion, cut in half, then slice into very thin half rounds.
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
If you use crushed tomatoes, you’re good to go. If you got whole, process them to a rough Sauce with a stick blender.
Add beef and flour to a mixing bowl and evenly coat the beef.
In a Dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat, add a tablespoon of ghee or oil and allow to heat through.
Add beef and brown thoroughly, about 2-3 minutes a side. Allow caramelization to occur, look for that nice dark crust before you turn it. Remove beef to the mixing bowl when it’s nicely browned.
Add 2 tablespoons of oil or ghee to pan and allow to heat through.
Add the onions and sauté until golden brown, about 7-9 minutes.
Add garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2 minutes.
Add Berbere to the veggies and stir to incorporate.
Add the stock and tomatoes, stir to incorporate, and allow to come to a simmer.
Add the beef and stir to incorporate.
Cover the pan and turn the heat as low as you can go – Go below the ‘Low’ mark, and keep going until your oven on light turns off, then backtrack just enough to light the light – That’s where you want to be for this dish. Cook low and slow, stirring occasionally, until beef is notably tender, about 3 hours.
Remove the lid and turn heat up to the low mark. Continue cooking until beef is fork tender, about 45 – 60 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes.
Serve with more Berbere spice, or Harissa, and freshly made flat bread. Although it’s not exactly authentic, this stuff is delicious over wild rice.
Ethiopian flatbread, Injera, is a delicious traditional staple, and a very cool take on sourdough. It takes a few days to prepare correctly, just as traditional sourdough needs an active starter to be ready to use. Again, I didn’t know I was gonna make this, so I didn’t do Injera. I therefore included the recipe for a nice Lebanese Man’ooshe flatbread you can make in about a hour. Injera is made with Teff, a very, very old species of annual Lovegrass that is an amazing source of nourishment, high in protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. It’s so prized in North Africa that most countries that grow it ban the export of the grain – It’s needed at home more than it is over here. That said, teff is now grown here in the states, and you can get excellent teff flour readily in most stores, or online. Locals say the lighter colored varieties are better than the dark, FYI.
1 1/2 Cups Teff Flour
2 Cups Water
Pinch of Sea Salt
2-3 Tablespoons Ghee or Avocado Oil for frying
In a clean, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine teff flour and water thoroughly to a smooth consistency, about like a thin pancake or crepe batter.
Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and allow to stand for 1 to as long as three days, until the mixture shows frothy bubbles on top and smells notably sour. If you keep a warm house, or have a proofing box, you can easily achieve overnight fermentation, but don’t be surprised if it takes a while.
With a whisk, add a pinch of salt and stir to incorporate. Repeat this until you can just barely taste the salt, then stop. Sourdough needs salt to properly control bacterial protein eating enzymes, and protect fragile gluten.
To a cast iron skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of ghee or oil and allow to heat through.
Pour in a ladle of batter to just cover the bottom of the skillet. You’ll employ the same technique as you would for crepes, but injera should be a bit thicker when you’re portioning.
When holes start to form on the bread and the edges lift free of the skillet, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool – They only get cooked on one side. Parchment between each will help them keep from sticking.
Serve right away.
Lebanese Flatbread – Man’ooshe
3 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Cup Water at about 75° F
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Honey
1 packet Dry Yeast
Extra Virgin Olive Oil for cooking
Combine water, yeast, and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate. Allow them to sit in a warm place until the yeast begins to work.
Add flour and salt and mix to incorporate – If the dough is too dry, add a little more water a Tablespoon at a time until you get to a moist but not sticky consistency.
Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise, about 30 – 45 minutes.
Remove the dough to a floured surface and cut it into 8 equal pieces with a pastry blade.
Use a floured rolling pin to roll each piece out to about 6″ or 7″ – About the size of a medium tortilla.
Lightly brush one side of each piece with olive oil
Set a flatbread into a cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Brush the exposed side with a little oil while the other cooks.
When the bread browns and gets puffy, it’s time to flip. When both sides are nicely browned, remove to cool and repeat the cooking process.
Dateline, December 12th, 2016. Second snow storm in as many days, most schools closed, accidents everywhere, our little street is a skating rink. Wherever you are, a bunch of you said, ‘Recipe, please,’ when I posted a pic the other day of a Two Hour Beef Stew. Couldn’t ask for a better day than today to delve in, so here we go.
First off, can a stew made in a couple of hours really taste that good? Won’t your crew know it didn’t have proper time to really get good? The answers are, yup, without a doubt, and nope, they won’t. Yeah, it’ll be great the next day, but done right, you’ll fool ’em into thinking you slaved all day if you do things as I’ll show you here.
There are four tricks/secrets/thangs ya gotta do if you want a stew that’s been made quite quickly to taste like it took forever. They’re simple things, and they also happen to define a primary difference between what a professional cook turns out versus the typical home chef. They are as follows –
1. Always start with aromatics,
2. Coat you meat lightly in flour and allow it to caramelize,
3. Deglaze your pan after those are done, and
4. Season as you go.
Do that, in combination with judicious choices of ingredients, and you’re in like Flynn.
The beauty of beef stew lies in its simplicity. Sure, you can add more things than you’re gonna find in a can of Hormel, but you don’t really need to – Beef, stock, carrots, potatoes, onion, a little tomato paste, salt and pepper. Of course, if you want to add more stuff, you certainly can – I like tomatoes, because they add a nice tang to the broth and help cut the richness as well. Here’s what we’ll use –
Beef Stew a la UrbanMonique
1 Pound Stew Beef
1/2 Cup diced sweet Onion
2 Carrots, sliced into rounds
2 Yukon Gold Potatoes
4 Cups Chicken Stock
1 14 oz. can diced, fire roasted Tomatoes
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Wondra Flour
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
Juice of 1/2 small Lemon
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
2 Bay Leaves
Fresh ground Pepper
We start with the aromatics – combinations of veggies and seasoning, sautéed in a little fat. This is the critical first step to building a great stew, soup, curry, stir fry, or house made stock. Onion, garlic, carrot, celery, parsnip, turnip, bay, sweet peppers and chiles, leeks, celeriac, and jicama all qualify. And there’s a reason that some of these combinations have venerable names of their own – Mire Poix from France, with onion, carrot and celery. Sofrito in Spain and Soffritto in Italy – Garlic, onion, tomato, and garlic and/or onion in olive oil, respectively. Garlic, spring onion, and ginger in many Asian cuisines. The Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking – onion, celery, and green pepper. Suppengrün in Germany, powered by carrot, celeriac, and leeks. Sautéed in oil or butter, ghee or coconut milk, these simple vegetables provide a subtle backbone of great flavor. Try building something without them, and you’ll immediately understand why they’re critical to success – Starting your stew with great aromatics guarantees that you’re building from a strong foundation.
Chop your aromatics to relatively uniform size prior to cooking. You needn’t be super fussy about this. For stew, a large dice of about 3/4″ will serve just fine, and if you want to leave your carrots as rounds, go ahead and do that. Cutting things up produces nice bite sized pieces, and provides more surface area for those great flavors to be released from.
In your stew pot, over medium heat, add a tablespoon or two of oil. I like Avocado Oil for its buttery flavor and high smoke point, but Olive will do just fine too. Once the oil is heated through, toss in your onion, carrot, and potatoes, and season them lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent. Salt and pepper is all you need for seasoning at this point – Oily, pungent herbs like bay, thyme, rosemary, and oregano will get the flavors sautéed right out of them if they’re introduced too early in the process. When your aromatics have cooked for 3 to 5 minutes, transfer them into a bowl.
Now it’s time for the meat, and here is where things also get done to ensure that we’re making stew and not soup – That means introducing a thickener. Cut stew beef down to roughly 3/4″ chunks if it’s not there already. Flour is the agent of choice for beef stew, and Wondra is the flour you want. Cooked and dried when it’s processed, Wondra is much less prone to clumping than ordinary flour, and makes wonderfully smooth sauces and stocks. A couple of tablespoons added to a pound of stew beef, a pinch of sea salt and a few twists of pepper, tossed by hand to assure a nice, even coat is all you need. Throw the floured beef into the stew pot over medium low heat, and then let it be. Let each side of your little beef cubes cook long enough for a nice, deep brown crust to develop – This means don’t mess with it inordinately – Let each side work before gently turning to the next. When your beef has a nice, even caramelized crust, toss it into the bowl with your veggies. This is a step that is far too often omitted or seriously short changed, and that’s not good – Take the time to do it right, and you’ll be amply repaid with great flavor. And trust me when I tell you that that flour will provide all the thickening power you’ll need.
Now comes deglazing. By this time, the sautéing of those veggies and the caramelization of your beef has left a wealth of dark stuff on the bottom of your stew pot. Amateurs think this will taste nasty and burned. Savvy chefs know that this stuff, called fond, is the source of some serious mojo. Take a good sniff of that pot – Does it smell good, like stuff you want to eat? If so, you’re go for deglaze, (and if not, ah well – wash that pot with a tear in your eye and start fresh, but you’ll be missing out on serious flavor.) deglazing frees up all those wonderful naughty bits to join the stew party. Get a stiff spatula, and a cup of the chicken stock called for in the recipe. Turn the heat up to medium high, wait a minute for the pot to heat through, then splash that stock in there. You’ll get a cloud of heavenly smelling steam and heat. Use your spatula to scrape all that good stuff loose and incorporate it into the stock. As soon as that’s done, add the rest of the stock, turn the heat back down to medium, and let everything heat through.
Now toss your sautéed veggies and meat into the pot, add the tomatoes and bay, tomato paste, and lemon juice and stir to incorporate. Season one more time with salt, pepper, and lemon thyme. Turn the heat down to low, and let that magic work for a couple of hours.
What you’ll end up with will taste like it worked all day. Serve it with crusty bread and a nice glass of red wine or a local beer. You don’t have to tell them how fast you did it.
I wish to make a declaration, and here it is – Monica makes better stew than I do. That’s because she unfailingly understands and implements the proper steps needed to separate a stew from a mere soup – She knows exactly how to thicken things up, and what to use in so doing – In other words, creating thick from thin.
Thickening is far more important to cooking than first glance might indicate. From baking to braising and sauces to stew, entire dishes, or critical components thereof, require a dependable thickening agent to turn out as expected. Let’s say you’re in the mood for pasta, and you want to keep things light. A pan sauce, made with stock, a little wine, a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper would do nicely – Except that, as described, it won’t stick to pasta very well, and it will be watery – Not a very appetizing image. Add a touch of a decent thickening agent, however, and everything is transformed. The delicate flavors now have a stable framework to marry within, and your lovely pan sauce will stick heartily to your pasta. Three questions spring from this example – What are our options, how do they work, and which thickener works best for a specific application? Let’s find the answers.
In a word, what we mean when we say thickening agent, is starch. From flour to cornstarch, and arrowroot to potato starch, there’s a wide array of options for home cooks. In gnarly scientific terms, a starch is a polymeric carbohydrate, or polysaccharide – a really long chain of sugar molecules that most green plants use as a primary source of stored energy. These starches occur as really small granules for the most part, which is a big reason that they lend themselves so well to cooking. The ones that make their way into our kitchens come from cereals and tubers – Wheat, corn, potato, and cassava for the most part. Seaweed also gets the nod, although that’s not all that common in the home kitchen – Irish moss, carrageenan, agar, and eucheuma are common examples.
There are, of course, artificial versions as well, and if you eat the processed crap that lurks in the middle aisles of your local grocery, you’re eating those too – anything that reads ‘alginate’ is an industrially produced product, mostly seaweed derivatives, and variously labeled as a thickener, stabilizer, or emulsifier on product labels. Finally, the popularity of molecular gastronomy has lead to some hybridized versions of things that are actually pretty cool, and quite accessible to the home chef – More on those a bit later.
So, how do these little suckers work, anyway? The answer lies in the chemical properties of those long chains of sugar molecules when they’re heated. Thickening gone wrong in the kitchen is like hitting a deer in eastern Washington – There’s those who’ve done it, and them’s who are gonna. Almost without fail, what’s at issue is a failed introduction. The oldest and most common starches found in the average home kitchen are flour and cornstarch, and those two just don’t mix with cold liquids. Once you introduce a starch to something hot, the magic begins – The starch granules begin to swell almost immediately, absorbing water. Once they hit their saturation point, the granules burst, adding more of those long chain molecules to the mix, and serious thickening begins. The starch expands, acting like a net and gathering as much liquid in as it can, and you’ve got gravy. How hot is hot enough to make this tiny miracle work? Flour and cornstarch are rich in amylose, and that little beastie needs to be almost to a boil to really reach its prime, although they’ll begin to work above 140° F.
Tapioca and cassava flour, on the other hand, contain another starch, amylopectin, and they don’t need to get close to a boil to work well – And for the record, tapioca and cassava are not the same thing – Tapioca is extracted from cassava roots by washing and pulping, while cassava is the whole root, peeled, dried and ground, as we covered recently in a post. Similarly, arrowroot as a dried version of a tropical tuber, and may come from one of several varieties, including cassava. More on this a bit later.
While we’re discussing how and why starches work as thickeners, it’s important to highlight some things that will hinder the thickening process. Acids, like that lemon juice and wine in our pan sauce, (as well as Vinegar of course), will weaken the thickening power of starch – not critically, in most formulations, but enough that we should be aware of it. The other common cooks mistake is tossing starch straight into a hot liquid. As many have discovered, that dog don’t hunt all that well. What happens is a very rapid gelatinization of the outsides of each starch lump. This effectively traps the rest of the stuff, leaving lumps of thickening agent and an embarrassed chef. What’s better, (and proper, frankly), is to draw off a half cup or so of whatever you’re wanting to thicken into a measuring cup, add the starch to that, mix thoroughly with a fork, and then pour that into the dish in progress – Stir that in thoroughly, and you’re giving your thickener the chance it needs to do its thing.
Time to answer that third question – What are the various thickeners best at, and how should they be deployed?
First comes flour, the go-to for most home cooks. The first things we’ll do, then, is talk about why maybe you don’t want flour to be your go-to. The reason? Putting it simply, flour isn’t a pure starch, as many other thickeners are – There are other proteins and whatnot in there, so ounce per ounce, flour has roughly 50% of the thickening power of pure starches. That means that it not only takes more to do the same job, but you get definite taste, textural, and visual notes when thickening with flour that you may not always want. Flour works best for stuff that won’t suffer from those potential shortcomings – White sauces, like béchamel, stews, and fricassées, for instance, and of course nothing else will truly do in a roux.
If you’re going to use flour for thickening, I highly recommend investing in Wondra – You’ll find it in most stores, in a round, blue and white can – Wondra is a low protein wheat flour that is roasted and dried, so it’s kinda like the Uncle Bens of flour. Because of that, it doesn’t clump, and makes excellent gravy and sauces – Its also great for dusting stuff you’re going to fry – It makes a nice, light coating. How best to deploy flour? You can add it to your aromatics at the beginning of the build process for a soup or stew – It’ll combine with the oil you use to sauté those veggies, and effectively create a roux. You can also coat your proteins in it, and then brown them – That’s Monica’s preferred method and it works great. You can also add flour to a cup or so of whatever you’re wanting to thicken with good results. One important note – Just as you need to cook canned tomatoes or beans long enough to get the can taste out, so must you cook flour thickened dishes to get rid of the raw flour taste – 3 to 5 minutes minimum at a steady simmer will do the trick.
Next up, cornstarch. Derived from, yes, corn, it’s a pure starch and a potent thickener. It imparts fewer indicators of its presence than flour does, and it can stand up to quite a bit of cooking without losing power. Because of that, it’s great for cream pies and puddings that require fairly lengthy cooking times. The potential downside of cornstarch lies in the fact that it’s more prone to clumping than any other starch – combine it with sugar when baking, or to enough liquid to form a smooth paste before introducing it to the main dish, to counteract its desire to clump. Cornstarch also provides a clearer finished product than flour – Something to keep in mind when appearance matters, (and when doesn’t appearance matter?)
Tapioca, which is extracted from cassava roots, can be found in pearl and powder form. It has, for my mind, a pretty narrow window of use. It’s great with fruit pies, jams, and jellies because it gels up more firmly than other starches, and holds a lot of liquid, and those qualities can really help keep a sweet treat from getting soggy. That said, it can be quite overwhelming, even cloying, hence the narrow window of opportunity. Note that tapioca does not do well on baked goodies with an open or lattice top, because it will not dissolve well when so deployed – With any pie, it’s a best practice to let the tapioca marry with the fruit for a good 10 minutes prior to baking. It’s also not great for soups and stews because it tends to break down quickly when exposed to relatively long cooking times.
Arrowroot is not widely used as a thickener, though it sure was back in the day – The earliest cultivation evidence for this stuff goes back over 7,000 years – It is enjoying somewhat of a comeback lately. Arrowroot is a favorite for its light footprint and formidable thickening power. Arrowroot comes from several rootstocks – Maranta Arundinacea or Manihot Esculenta, (AKA Cassava) in the tropics, Zamia integrifolia (Florida Arrowroot), and Pueraria Lobata, AKA Japanese arrowroot, also known as the dreaded Kudzu vine. The only no-no for this stuff is use with dairy – doing that will result in a most unpleasant, slimy consistency.
Otherwise, arrowroot works faster and more efficiently than either flour, cornstarch, or tapioca. It will thicken at a lower temperature, and won’t make clear stuff cloudy. You can even freeze stuff thickened with arrowroot, something no other options does very well at all. You can substitute 2 teaspoons of arrowroot in recipes calling for a tablespoon of cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon for those asking for a tablespoon of flour. When you use arrowroot, add it to warm liquid and mix well prior to introduction to a hot dish. As soon as whatever you’re working on thickens, remove it from heat, as arrowroot has limited tolerance for long cooking, (As such, it’s not what you want to use for pies, tarts, etc). Arrowroot has excellent resistance to the weakening effects of acids, so those soups, stews, and sauces with citrus, wine, or vinegar are prime turf for its use.
Potato starch is another thickener that you’ve not seen much in this country until recently, though it’s always been popular in Europe. Derived from, yep, potatoes, its recent popularity here is due to the fact that it’s one of the latest crown princes of the gluten free/super food hype parade. Beyond that, it’s another one I like a lot. Bob’s Red Mill makes great potato flour and starch, and is widely available. Potato starch is highly refined, meaning it has very little protein or fat in it – This yields a thickener with a truly neutral taste, great strength, fast action, durability, and most impressive clarity – That stock, wine, and citrus pan sauce we started with comes out beautifully with potato starch onboard.
And then there’s that molecular gastronomy stuff. Poke around a place like Molecular Recipes, where I like to get my stuff, and you’ll find a raft of thickeners. All those industrial thickeners I mentioned a while back are here, if that sort of thing floats your boat. There are also elegantly refined versions of more traditional stuff, like the product they call Ultra Sperse. This is a highly refined version of corn starch – So much so that you can add it to almost anything, hot or cold, and it will thicken quickly, robustly, and without making lumps. Ultra Sperse yields a clean tasting, clear, bright thickened product you can cook to your hearts content, or. Ore to the point, not if you prefer or need to do things cold. It’s amazing stuff, and I highly recommend it. THE USUAL DISCLAIMER – No, I don’t work for or with this outfit, nor do I get free or discounted stuff from them. I bought it, with my money, same as you can, and I recommend it because it’s great stuff you’ll like too.
And finally, never forget the power of leftovers – Case in point, we’ve just had thanksgiving, which lead to the full blown turkey and all the trimmings dinner. On day three, I made turkey stew, and thickened it with leftover gravy and mashed potatoes. It was stunningly rich and delicious. And of course gazpacho, that heavenly cold soup, absolutely must have day old bread used as the thickener – Anything else would be uncivilized. And a little corn flour is the bees knees in your next batch of chili.
So there you have it, some new stuff to go find and try, and a solid reference for future explorations.
Birria, real birria, is a sublime beauty. Like so many fantastic regional Mexican sauces, there is a perceived, daunting complexity to the making, but birria is far easier than it looks or tastes, and it rewards with stunning depth and complexity. If you’ve ever enjoyed a really good red or black molé, the effect is similar. Birria hails from the state of Jalisco, which is more or less in the middle of the country on the Pacific side; it runs inland for nearly half the country’s width, some 30,000 square miles of beach, mountain, forest and plain, with altitudes from sea level to over 14,000 feet. Many things considered ‘Mexican’ by us gringos come from here, from mariachi and ranchero music to birria and tequila.
The popular nickname for people from Jalisco is Tapatio, a name hot sauce fans everywhere will instantly recognize. That, the competing hot sauce Cholula, and la Rojeña distillery, home of Jose Cuervo, are easily the most widely known constituents of Jalsciense food and drink, but there’s much more. Fish from ocean and lake, wild game birds, corn, beans, and a dizzying array of chiles are just the start. The Spanish introduced stock animals, dairy, and additional fruit and vegetables. All that bounty has lead to a rich and varied cuisine that blends the old and new in an ever-evolving melange. For classics, posole, menudo, and guacamole all have their roots here, as does birria.
Birria is arguably the state dish, served for special occasions and holidays. It, like posole and menudo, are also celebrated as hangover cures, (and you could do far worse for a morning after repast). Basically a stew, birria is most often found served in tacos, with pickled onions and lime from street carts, birrierias, throughout Mexico. Like any other long standing, legendary dish, the ‘correct’ preparation of birria varies widely. Traditionally, the meat is goat or mutton, marinaded in adobo spices, then married with chiles, tomatoes, onion, and spices. Here in the states, neither of those proteins is widely available, so the dish is made with beef or pork ribs, or even chicken.
Below you’ll find our take on birria; it’s pretty true to the original. If you go with beef ribs as we did, find a big package of the rough looking, inexpensive stuff – The long, slow boil will tenderize any cut, so don’t spend big bucks on short ribs, which are popular these days, and as such, stupid expensive.
I offer preparations for both homemade adobo and achiote paste as well. My understanding is that the latter is actually a Yucateco specialty, (From the Yucatan Penninsula), but it would not be much of a stretch for there to have been a cross-country trade in such things. Both of these are amazing when homemade – night and day from anything store bought.
When you’re ready to shop, locate a Mexican grocery or carniceria near you and make a visit. You will likely find all the spices and chiles you need there, (most of which are really inexpensive and already ground), and bitter orange juice, too. A carniceria will likely have great ribs as well. Don’t forget fresh tortillas either – 4″ or 5″ corn are best.
Again, this may look daunting, but I assure you it’s not. Assemble all the pieces on your kitchen table, stage ingredients, and enjoy the journey – It will be absolutely worth the effort. Make the adobo, achiote, and pickled onions ahead of the birria, so you’ll have plenty of time to build that at a leisurely pace. Several of the prep steps can be done the night before as well, so break things up if it seems like it’s too much in one swell foop. I strongly suggest you print this whole thing out and read it through it a time or two before you cut loose; it’s not hard, but there are quite a few moving parts…
1/4 cup sweet paprika.
3 tablespoons ground black pepper.
2 tablespoons onion powder.
2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
2 tablespoons ground cumin.
1 tablespoon chipotle chile powder.
1 tablespoon garlic powder.
Blend all ingredients throughly and place in an airtight spice jar. Adobo can be used as a dry rub, or moistened to a paste with bitter orange or grapefruit juices; each of the wet variants brings a whole new angle to the marinade. Apply to your chosen protein and allow to rest, refrigerated and uncovered, for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
2 tablespoons annatto seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds or 1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon black pepper or 1 teaspoon chipotle pepper
5 allspice berries
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch nutmeg
NOTE: Annato is a colorant used to make cheese yellow, among other things; it will stain anything and everything porous it touches, (including your hands), so handle with care.
Put all ingredients into a spice grinder, and pulse until you’ve achieved a uniform, fine powder.
Transfer to a small mixing bowl, and add a tablespoon of cold water; mix into a thick paste that holds together well – For this recipe, 1 to 2 tablespoons of water is plenty.
You can place the paste into an ice cube tray, cover, and freeze it, and it’ll last a good 6 months; just pop out a cube when you need some. Refrigerating in an airtight container will last a good 90 days.
To use the paste as a marinade, blend a tablespoon of paste with 6 to 8 cloves of roasted garlic and 1/2 Cup of bitter orange juice, (also called Seville orange juice by some purveyors), or grapefruit juice.
Smear onto chicken or pork and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
3 Pounds Beef Ribs
5 mild Hatch or Anaheim Chiles
2 dried Pasilla Chiles
2 dried Ancho Chiles
1 12 oz. can Tomatoes
1 small Sweet Onion
4 cloves Garlic
12 black Peppercorns
1 tablespoon Achiote Paste
1/2 teaspoon Cumin Seed
Freshly ground pepper
12 to 16 small corn tortillas.
Pickled sweet onions
Fresh Lime wedges
1 small sweet Onion (Red or yellows are fine if you prefer more bite)
3/4 Cup White Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
Refried Black Beans
1 12 ounce can Black Beans
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1-2 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Butter
1/4 Cup Cream
Sea Salt and freshly ground Black Pepper to taste
Combine beans, stock, and smashed or pressed garlic in a pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer while building the birria.
Drain beans and transfer to a skillet over medium heat. Smash beans with a fork or potato masher to a nice, rough consistency.
Add butter and whisk with a fork to incorporate.
Add cream and whisk to incorporate.
Season to taste with salt and pepper, reduce heat to low.
M’s Mexi Rice
1 Cup long grain white Rice
1 1/2 Cups Chicken Stock
1 Tablespoon Butter
1/2 teaspoon Chipotle powder
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
Combine rice, butter, and seasonings in a pot over medium high heat. Sauté the rice for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add stock bring to a boil.
Cover and reduce heat to low.
Simmer covered for 15 to 20 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is fluffy.
Remove from heat, leave covered and set aside until service.
At least 4 hours prior to cooking, and up to overnight, prepare a wet adobo rub per instructions above. Evenly coat your meat, and allow to marinate, refrigerated and uncovered.
In a large stock pot over medium heat, add the ribs in tight layers. Season with a tablespoon of sea salt and cover with fresh water until you’ve got a couple inches over the highest ribs.
Bring the pot to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low.
Skim the fat and foam that comes to the surface.
Boil ribs for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, skimming as needed; if the water gets down to rib level, add a bit more to keep them covered.
Rinse, peal, and thinly slice one of the sweet onions. In a mixing bowl, combine vinegar, sugar, salt and oregano, whisk to incorporate. Toss onions into the bowl and make sure they’re fully covered by the brine. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
If using whole dried chiles, put them in a small bowl and cover completely with water. Allow to soak for 30 to 60 minutes, until the chiles are soft and pliable.
Rinse, stem and seed Hatch or Anaheim chiles. Rinse, peel and quarter the remaining onion. Peel the garlic cloves and leave whole. Roast all those ingredients on a baking sheet under a broiler, turning once or twice, until chile skins are blistered. Remove from oven and hot baking sheet, and set aside to cool.
Prep Adobo and Achiote paste, per above.
When rib meat is tender and starting to separate from the bones, use tongs and transfer ribs to a colander for a 15 minute rest.
Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the rib broth, pour the rest off and return the pot to the stove, with the burner off.
Add peppercorns and cumin seed to a spice grinder and pulse to a smooth powder.
Remove reconstituted chiles from soaking water, then stem and seed them.
In a blender or food processor, combine all chiles, the roasted onion and garlic, tomatoes, pepper and cumin, and achiote paste. Pulse to a smooth consistency. Add a cup of the reserved broth and pulse to incorporate; you can add more broth if you prefer the sauce a bit thinner.
Place a single mesh strainer over the stock pot and run the sauce through, gently pressing by hand. Turn heat to medium. When the sauce starts to bubble, reduce heat to medium low and cook for 20 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.
Heat tortillas, wrapped in foil, in a warm oven.
Separate the rib meat from bones and fat, and hand shred.
Add the meat to the sauce, reduce heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes longer.
Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Serve three or four tacos, garnished with pickled onions and a couple lime wedges, refrieds, and rice.