Building Great Salads

When the garden churns into production mode, I get a serious salad Jones on a regular basis. There’s something about watering becoming an exercise in dinner recon and going outside to prep for dinner that seems very right to me. This seems like a good time to talk about building great salads, and what to dress them with.

Even homegrown greens gotta be cleaned

When fresh veggies are abundant, they deserve some extra care, especially lettuces. If you’ve ever been served a salad that really popped for you, it’s a guarantee that the level of prep and presentation went well beyond what usually happens at home, even if things looked really simple. Recreating that at home is not difficult, and well worth the effort.

Homegrown bounty

The first thing that really needs to get done is a gentle but thorough washing of anything and everything you’ve harvested. We don’t use any chemicals on our garden, but regardless, there’s dirt and maybe a critter or two that needs to be found and removed. This is also the time to inspect and remove any wilted or damaged parts. Have a big bowl of icy cold water ready beside your station, and drop stuff into it as you’re done with it. Even freshly picked greens start to lose water and crispness quite quickly when it’s hot out – The cold water will keep them in top form. After everything has had a good soak, change the water and let them have a second cold bath. These steps should be done right before assembly and service of the salad.

Enfrijoladas Toppings - Whatever ya got.

 

As you prep additional goodies for the salad, place them into sealable airtight containers, (preferably glass). A lot of us at home make too much, and mix it all together in one big ol’ bowl – Ask yourself how often you have that green salad again, until it’s gone? The jumbled mix invites things to go bad, and other ingredients to get thrown out – Like when your tomatoes or cukes go first, but they’re mixed with everything else, and… With everything prepped, offered, and stored individually, folks can build their own mix, and leftovers lend themselves readily to new dishes.

Specialized lettuce containers are absolutely worth it

Invest in a container or two specifically designed for storage of lettuce and veggies. We have two that both have a drain tile over the bottom, snug fitting kids, and ventilation options. These things genuinely will store lettuce and veggies for longer and better than any other option we’ve tried – It’s actually pretty amazing – Lettuce and cabbage stays crisp and other stuff, from carrots and celery to chiles and green onions, last far longer.

Urb’s Herby Vinaigrette

Make dressings fresh, just as you do your salad. Building even relatively complicated dressings take no time at all, and is a delightful exercise. Dressings in big ass plastic squeeze jars isn’t how we should want things to be – That’s done for the benefit of the seller – not for us. Whip up what you need, plus some extra to go to lunch with you tomorrow. Building in smaller, fresher batches yields far superior results, and furthers exploration of what you really like – Maybe even your own signature thing – And that’s very cool indeed.

Home grown herbs

Fresh herbs rock in salads, within bounds of reason. When they’re fresh, herbs are at the pinnacle of their potency – Keep That in mind, along that with the fact that a whole sage leaf may be enough to season a whole batch of stew, and you get my drift. Use them sparingly – incorporated into dressings may be your best bet for balanced flavors that don’t overwhelm.

A basic lettuce blend is great as a base. If you’re of a mind to add more stuff like cabbage, kale, arugula, frisée, or chicory, keep in mind that not everyone may share the love – Allowing your crew to decide for themselves if they want to add them will often make for happier campers, and again, it gives you greater leftover flexibility.

Emeril Lagasse used to have a shtick on one of his shows, wherein he’d say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know about where your lettuces come from, but mine don’t come seasoned.’ There’s wisdom there – Good greens certainly have flavor and texture, but a wee sprinkle of salt and a twist of pepper will make those different tastes pop all the more.

Finally, here are three dressings I’m really liking this summer.

 

Urban Dijon Vinaigrette

1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/3 Cup Aged Sherry Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard

1 teaspoon Agave Nectar

1 sprig fresh Thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 clove fresh Garlic

Pinch of Salt

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

 

Trim, smash, and mince garlic.

Pull leaves from thyme stalk and mince.

Combine all ingredients in a mason jar and cover, then shake vigorously to combine.

Allow to marry for a few minutes, and shake again prior to serving.

 

Urb’s Herby Vinaigrette 

This is a very vibrant dressing – Makes a great marinade for chicken or pork too. 

Fresh herbs are best when you have them.

1/2 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar

2 Tablespoons fresh Lemon Juice

1 Tablespoon minced fresh Garlic

2 teaspoons minced fresh Sweet Onion

3 teaspoons Oregano

2 teaspoons Tarragon

2 teaspoons Parsley

2 teaspoons ground Black Pepper

2 teaspoons ground Mustard

1 teaspoon Rosemary

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Salt

2 whole Bay Leaves

 

Combine all ingredients in a mason jar and cover, then shake vigorously to combine.

Allow to marry for a few minutes, and shake again prior to serving.

 

Urb’s Teriyaki Joint Dressing

If you’ve ever had teriyaki in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve had a variant of this dressing. 

I love the stuff, and I bet you will too. If you go all out and make fresh mayo at home for this, it’s stunningly delicious.

1 Cup Mayonnaise

1/4 Cup Toasted Sesame Oil

1/2 Cup Rice Vinegar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar 

2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce

1/2 teaspoon Granulated Garlic 

Combine all ingredients in a non reactive mixing bowl and whisk vigorously to combine.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.

With all that to consider, it aughta be a pretty swell salad season, don’t ya think?

What Should We Do With Homegrown Produce?

It’s high summer here in the Pacific Northwet and, (I apologize for this next part), it’s been a very pleasant one indeed – Lots of sun interspersed with decent period of cool and plenty of rain. This means the garden is very, very happy. Despite the recent broad scale heat wave, reports from friends all across the country indicate similar bounties – This begs the question, what should we do with home grown produce?

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Planting and growing a garden is an exercise that can easily lead to excess. Starters and seed packs look so dang appealing, we load up maybe more than we need. Add the unknown factor of actual produce yield, and we can easily find ourselves swimming in the stuff – Ask anyone who’s planted zucchini about that – especially the folks who don’t like zucchini…

So what should we do with our garden bounty? The answer is to have a plan, and confirm that what you have in mind is doable in the time you’ll likely have. Just as we don’t cook as often as we’d like to, (or think we will), our best laid plans for dealing with a lot of produce have to be tempered by reality. It is absolutely possible to grow a lot of veggies and keep waste to a minimum – Here are some ideas you might find appealing for your situation.  

Home grown herbs

A lot of gardeners fail to take into account the amount of work actually needed – Something needs to be done daily. Frankly, this is a privilege and not a chore, and should be recognized as such. With as crappy as the world’s gotten lately, stepping into your garden after a day of reality is a gift. Watering, weeding, trimming, checking for pests, harvesting – It’s all good therapy, and it’ll keep your garden healthy and productive. And do ask yourself how often things you’ve grown rot on the vine – it happens a lot in home gardens. Making sure that what you’ve grown makes it to someone’s table really is job #1.

Stagger your home garden planting for greater yield and manageability

Stagger your planting. For one thing, doing so ensures that the kits keep on coming, and has the added benefit of making harvesting more manageable. Read up on the expected times from plating to harvest for what you grow, so you can plan accordingly. This simple step will help quite a bit, and it’s fun too –  having new stuff growing and thriving is absolutely good for the soul as well as the stomach.

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Be realistic about what will get used right away. With the way and frequency most folks cook, that’s an unlikely scenario. A lot of homegrown produce gets wasted because we don’t take this factor seriously enough. All that stuff looks great sitting on the counter or in the fridge, right up to the point that it starts to rot and has to be tossed. If you come all the way through the non-productive months with stuff from your garden frozen, dried, or canned, you’re doing well. Yes, fresh tastes best, but home grown is a delight any time of the year. 

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Some form of meal planning is a must, to avoid waste and get the most out of what we buy or grow. When harvest season is in full swing for your garden, take into account what’s fresh now, as well as what will be within the next few days, and incorporate as much of that as you can into your planning. That’ll go a long way toward limiting garden waste.

You don’t need a vacuum sealer to freeze stuff, but you do want to have sufficient, appropriate containers or wraps to get the job done. A lot of fruit and veggies will fit canning jars or glass storage containers with airtight lids, and a layer of parchment with another of metal foil on top of that will also do a fine job. Any of those options will do a good job of resisting freezer burn too.

Store dried herbs in glass

A dehydrator does the best job of drying, but your oven on warm, or plain old solar radiation, will do fine. Store dried produce in airtight glass containers. From fruit and veggies to herbs, this is a great way to extend the harvest year round. Keep this stuff in a cool, dry corner of your kitchen out of direct sunlight, for best longevity and flavor retention.

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Pickling is a great way to enjoy your homegrown goodies. A fridge pickle can be done very quickly indeed, with a minimum of fuss.

Fridge pickling is a great way to preserve homegrown produce

Share the bounty liberally. This is what we’re called to do as humans and members of a community. Contrary to all too common belief, food banks and shelters are happy to take excess home garden produce. It’s a wonderful gift to those in need, and if the opportunity doesn’t feed your desire for a couple more starts of this and that, I don’t know what will. Got older folks who can’t garden any more in your neighborhood? How about single parents, or young moms with their hands seriously full? Far too many of us are shy about asking, and we shouldn’t be – Chances are very good that your offer will be gratefully accepted and appreciated. How about your coworkers? Are folks at the job blown away when you describe all that you’re growing? They’ll be all the more thrilled when you share the bounty – Maybe even them zucchini.

Not Your Mom’s Sloppy Joe

What could possibly be more American than the sloppy joe – lots of things, actually. While the iconic loose meat sandwich has origin claims all over the lower 48, the straight skinny is that this messy gem came from Havana, Cuba – And you can rest assured that this is not your mom’s sloppy joe.

Those of us who’re old enough will remember stuff like the Manwich from the 1960s, (and other atrocities). Go back farther though, and hints of the true roots come to light – Names like ’Spanish hamburger’, and ‘minced beef Spanish style’. American origin stories focus on the Midwest, where loose meat sandwiches have been popular since the mid nineteenth century. Sioux City, Iowa and an ephemeral cook named Joe back in the 1930s is about as good as the story gets – Yet there was direct evidence out there – like a 1944 ad from the Coshocton, Ohio Tribune that read, ‘Good Things to Eat’ says ‘Sloppy Joes’ – 10c – Originated in Cuba,’ – and there you have it.

There is, of course, the world famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida – That joint sells upward of 50,000 of the iconic sandwiches annually – yet they are not the original. That would be Jose Garcia Rios’ Havana Club, a tiny bar attached to a grocery store in Havana, Cuba, that opened back in 1918. The store sold a lot of seafood, and the floor was eternally covered in ice and packing materials – As such, locals started referring to Jose G. as Sloppy Joe, because Habaneros truly love fond but slightly barbed nicknames – and it stuck. According to Mark Kurlansky in his wonderful book, Havana – A Subtropical Delirium, ‘Sloppy Joe’s specialized in a sandwich of the same name that was a perfect expression of Havana at the time. It was the traditional Cuban dish picadillo, served on an American-style hamburger bun,’ and that is where it all began.

Cuban sofrito

Cuban picadillo is different from what you’re likely familiar with. It’s ground or shredded meat powered by Cuban sofrito, the signature aromatic blend of onion, garlic, and bell pepper, often with other veggies and herbs added as the cook sees fit. If you google ‘Cuban picadillo,’ you’re more likely than not to find a recipe that includes ground beef, potatoes, onions, garlic, cumin, bell peppers, white wine, tomato sauce, raisins, olives and capers. The reason that this iteration is so prolific isn’t necessarily because it’s the most authentic, but because it’s the most copied – often word for word, by different posters. Picadillo is a core Cuban dish, and as such, everybody makes it, and nobody makes it the same way.

Kurlansky included this passage on the subject in his book – ‘Below is the recipe as the bartender (at the Havana Sloppy Joe’s), gave it to me, translated into English. But first you have to make a picadillo, so here is a recipe for picadillo given to me more than thirty years ago at an equally famous Havana bar, La Bodeguita del Medio: Grind meat (beef) and marinate it with salt and lime juice, or vinegar. Make a sofrito with minced garlic and onion sautéd with the ground meat. This should be done slowly. Now the Sloppy Joe: Saute picadillo in oil: add black pepper, onion, garlic, cumin, bay leaf, and tomato sauce, and finish with demi-glace sauce. Add salt to taste and when it is cooked, add (green) olives. Keep on medium heat for 5 minutes to finish. Serve over a hamburger bun.’

That struck me as a much sounder base to work from. It’s safe to say that, if we have stuff we like at hand, any Cuban cook would encourage us to add some – to a point. Cuban cooking is fundamentally simple, not always because of a dearth of ingredients, but because that’s how they do things – When ingredients are good, it’s best to allow them to shine. As for process, I like it a lot – Most folks will want to treat the dish as a slow cooked stew, and that’s fine – but I really dig doing the low and slow with the meat first, adding that carnitas cooking step of lightly frying the beef in oil before final assembly, and then using reduced, fresh beef stock as a stand in for the demi glacé.

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

Here then is my swing at a Cuban Sloppy Joe. We use a slow cooker here – I think you get brighter, more distinct flavors that way, since the potent ingredients go in at the end of the cooking process. The recipe is bulked up beyond what you’d need for a single meal, because leftovers like these are a thing of beauty. Note that there are no hot chiles this dish. I’ve been told more than once that most Cubans don’t really do a lot of hot food, rarely using hot chiles. They do use onion and garlic generously, which adds plenty of spicy notes. They also don’t salt things nearly as much as we do up here in el Norte – This recipe reflects those predilections. 

Finally, there’s no reason at all not to serve this over rice with a side of beans the first night – That would be more in keeping with Cuban cooking than the hamburger bun – 24 hours later, the mix is much firmer and, frankly, better than it was on day one – That’s the time to bring out the buns.

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

This is an all day low and slow dish, so plan accordingly.

3 Pounds Beef Roast, (Chuck, Rump, Cross Rib, or Bottom Round will all shred nicely)

1 large yellow Onion

2 mild Anaheim Chiles

1 Green Bell Pepper

2 stalks Celery

2 Carrots

7 fat cloves Garlic

1 bunch fresh Cilantro

2 14 oz cans diced Tomatoes (if it’s tomato season, absolutely use fresh – but you’ll need 8-10 big ones)

1 Cup stuffed Manzanillo Olives

2 Cups Beef Broth

2 Tablespoons Banana Vinegar (Cider vinegar will work fine)

2 fresh Limes

2 Tablespoons Non Pareil Capers with Brine

2 teaspoons Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Salt

1/2 teaspoon Cumin

3-4 Turkish Bay Leaves

5-6 twists of ground Black Pepper

4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil for cooking

Low and slow cross rib roast

Peel and trim onion. Smash and skin 2 cloves of garlic. End trim celery and carrots. Rough chop half the onion, the celery, and the carrots.

Place beef roast, onion, garlic, celery, carrots, and a quarter teaspoon of whole cumin in a slow cooker. Add a three fingertip pinch of salt and a couple of bay leaves.

Cover the roast about 3/4 way with water and set the cooker on low – Cooking will require around 8 hours for most devices. 

Keep an eye on the water level and don’t let it drop much – I keep it pretty much where I started at throughout the cooking process.

Check internal temperature of the beef after 7 hours of cooking – You’re after 160° F. When you reach that, pull the roast out of the cooker and let it rest for 15 minutes. Retain the beef broth in the cooker.

While the beef is cooling, prepare your mise en place for everything else – An assortment of small bowls or ramekins is really indispensable in a kitchen – If you don’t have a bunch – get ‘em.

Always get your mise together

Dice remaining onion. Smash, peel, end trim, and mince remaining cloves of garlic. Stem, end trim, and dice Anaheims and bell pepper. Chop 1/2 packed cup of cilantro.

Transfer one can of tomatoes to a mixing bowl and process to a sauce with a stick blender. Leave the other can diced, and retain the liquid.

Measure out and either rough chop or quarter the manzanillo olives, as you prefer.

Measure out 2 tablespoons of capers with brine.

Halve the lime and squeeze out 1/4 cup of juice. Retain any extra, cut into 1/8ths for garnish.

Measure out 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Measure out 2 teaspoons of oregano. 

Measure and grind 1/4 teaspoon of cumin.

In a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of oil and heat through. Add the onion, chiles, and bell pepper, and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

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

Turn off the heat under those veggies and let them sit.

Hand shredded beef for Cuban sloppy joe

Beef shredding time – You can do this by hand, or with two forks, which I find easier – You need pretty stout flat wear, and you should hold them close to the tines. You can cut things to length if you like, then shred with the grain of the roast.

In a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add 3 tablespoons of oil and heat through.

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

When the oil is nice and hot, add the beef and let if fry for a minute or so before flipping it – You want to get a thin coating of oil to char slightly.

Once the beef has been evenly fried, (about 3-4 minutes), add a cup of stock from your slow cooker and deglaze the pan. Scrape all the naughty bits off the bottom. Chances are good most of this cup will boil away, which is OK – add another and let that heat through until it’s simmering.

Add the can of diced tomatoes and the can you sauced, and stir to incorporate. 

Real deal Cuban Sloppy Joe

Once the mix is simmering again, add the sautéd veggies and a three finger pinch of salt, a few twists of ground pepper, and 2 Bay Leaves – stir those in thoroughly. 

Reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer and allow to cook for about 30 minutes.

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

Add the cilantro, olives, capers, oregano, lime juice, vinegar, and cumin – stir to incorporate.

Let cook on a bare simmer for another 30 minutes.

Serve hot, and try not to eat it all the first night.

Again, I’ll recommend you do rice and beans as we did the first night, and go for buns on day two – The flavors have thoroughly married and it’s that much better, as well as tighter then.

It’s Time to Riff on Gazpacho

This was posted back a few months, when we were having technical difficulties. Now that it’s stupid hot in most of the country, (and we’ve got the technical stuff fixed), I figure it’s a good time to repost.

Gazpacho is often considered a strictly summer dish, although it needn’t be so. A cold, veggie-based soup makes a great side for something heavy like smoked meats, a hot bean dish – anything for which a cool, tart sip would make a nice counterpoint or palate cleanser.

Gazpacho is wholly embraced as Spanish in origin, and may well be, although the roots likely go deeper than that. Rome overran Spain roughly 2,200 years ago, and brought with them, among other things, a gruel or mush made predominantly of bread and oil – and the Latin word ‘caspa,’ a reference to breadcrumbs, and the likely root of ‘gazpacho’. Like all great dishes there are now variants from all over the globe, but the Spanish and Portuguese versions are still the most well known.

Gazpacho Andaluz - The one you’re probably thinking of

The gazpacho you’re likely familiar is Andalusian in origin – that rich orange-red tomato based stuff, redolent of garlic, fresh veggies, and good olive oil. Fact is, this variant didn’t show up until very late in the development of the dish. For literally millennia, it was more likely a close mirror to the original (and relatively boring), Roman version. What made it what it is today is the garlic and almonds from Central Asia, olives from Greece, cucumbers from India, brought to España by the Romans and the Moors. Add tomatoes, tomatillos, avocados and chiles from Mexico and South America hauled home by Spanish and Portuguese conquerors, and that’s the magic that converted the mundane into the sublime. 

Gazpacho Verde - All about New World flavors

There are many variations on the central gazpacho theme – Red, green, and white, smooth or chunky, mild or fiery, some more like salsa than soup, and all are delightful. Not all variants are purely veggie based – Everything from almonds to watermelon and green grapes may find their way into the mix. Fish or meat get in there too, as with Mexican gazpacho ceviche, or Portuguese versions loaded with local ham.

Some Gazpacho variants are more like Pico de Gallo than soup

Traditionally, whatever is to go in the mix is rough chopped and tossed into a large vessel, then pounded with a mortar, strained, and deseeded. Nowadays, a blender or food processor is more often employed. The old ways are preferred by those who insist that a completely smooth and even consistency is contrary to the spirit of the dish and frankly, and I kind of agree – Enough so to approve of using modern methods, but leaving things a bit more on the rustic side, at any rate.

Gazpacho Blanco - Ancient and sublime

While the vast majority of gazpachos are served cold, that doesn’t mean that you can’t heat up the ingredients a bit – Roasting, grilling, or broiling veggies intensifies their flavors and deepens sweetness – That can be a thing to try with just an ingredient or two, or the lion’s share, as you please. Gazpacho is a perfect vehicle for home gardens, when you are looking at your yield and wondering what you can do with all that, as well as a great thing to do with stuff that has to get out of the fridge and go to work before it goes bad, (and if things are kind of on their last legs, roasting may be just the ticket.)

Here’s a few basics to get you going, then you should branch out and make them yours.

Gazpacho Andaluz – I’ve been making this version since the late ‘60s, when a Spanish friend of my mom’s showed me the ropes.

4-5 ripe Tomatoes.

1 Cucumber.

1 medium Bell Pepper, (Red, orange, or yellow, as you like, or that needs to get used)

1-3 cloves fresh Garlic.

2 thick slices Bread, (something with a dense crumb, dried out overnight)

1/3 cup extra virgin Olive Oil.

2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar.

1 Cup Vegetable Stock

Fine grind kosher Salt, fresh ground Pepper, and ground Chile to taste.

If you want to roast, grill, or char your veggies, do that first, and then allow them to cool to room temperature.

Remove crusts from bread and toss into a bowl just big enough for the slices. Cover with the veggie stock and allow that to soak for 15 to 20 minutes.

Peel, core, seed and rough chop tomatoes, cucumber, pepper and garlic. Throw all those into a blender or processor and pulse just to get them incorporated. 

Grab your bread and squeeze it into a ball as hard as you can. 

Pour off the stock into a measuring cup, in case you need some further on in the process.

Crumble the bread back into the bowl, then add the oil and vinegar. Mix well to fully incorporate.

Slowly add the bread/oil/vinegar blend to the veggie mix while pulsing the blender or processor on low until you get the consistency you like – You want a nice, relatively thick soup that will coat a spoon, but you can leave that mix on the rustic side, or go all the way to a purée, as you wish.

If your mix is too thick, thin it out by pulsing in a little more stock.

You can go with the gazpacho as is, or, if you really want things smooth, pour it into a single mesh strainer and carefully force the soup through with your fingers.

Place soup in a glass bowl or container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, and up to overnight.

When you’re ready to eat, taste the gazpacho and then season minimally with salt and pepper. Provide more of those, plus fine ground chiles, at the table.

Serve with additional garnishes that float your boat – Chopped dry cured chorizo, Jamon Iberico, hard-boiled egg, cilantro, diced tomato, cucumber, onion or shallot, chiles or sweet peppers, pico de gallo, celery leaf, chives, fresh mustard greens, any quick pickled veggie blend you like, sour cream or crema, are all wonderful.

Gazpacho Verde

4 large Tomatillos

4 Green Onions (Scallions)

1 Green Bell Pepper

1 English Hothouse Cucumber

2 Green Chiles (New Mexican, anaheim, jalapeño, or serrano – i.e. heat level as you prefer)

2 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Cup Greek Yogurt

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/4 Cup Veggie Stock

1/4 Cup Cider Vinegar

2 thick slices Bread, (something with a dense crumb, dried out overnight)

1 fresh Lime

Fine ground Kosher Salt 

Freshly ground Pepper

Ground Piment d’Espelette chile 

If you want to roast, grill, or char your veggies, do that first, and then allow them to cool to room temperature.

Husk, stem, and quarter tomatillos.

Stem, seed and rough chop pepper and chiles.

smash, peel, trim, and mince garlic.

Trim and rough chop green onions.

Slice cuke in half, deseed, then rough chop.

Zest and juice lime.

Remove crusts from bread and tear into roughly 1” pieces.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, add lime zest, 2 tablespoons juice, the vinegar, the yogurt, and the avocado oil. Whisk until fully incorporated.

Add the tomatillos, green onions, chiles, cuke, garlic, and bread to the mix and stir to thoroughly coat the bread.

Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

When you’re ready to eat, add the mix to a blender in workable batches and blend until smooth as you prefer – You want a nice, relatively thick soup that will coat a spoon, but you can leave that mix on the rustic side, or go all the way to a purée, as you wish.

Taste the soup and season lightly with salt and pepper. Provide more, and the ground chile, at the table.

Serve with additional garnishes that float your boat – Chopped dry cured chorizo, Jamon Iberico, hard-boiled egg, cilantro, diced tomato, cucumber, onion or shallot, chiles or sweet peppers, pico de gallo, celery leaf, chives, fresh mustard greens, any quick pickled veggie blend you like, sour cream or crema, are all wonderful.

Gazpacho Blanco

1 Cup blanched Marcona Almonds (Must be soaked overnight!)

1 Cup cold Water

1/4 Cup extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 thick slices Bread, (something with a dense crumb, dried out overnight)

1 Apple (Pink lady, honey crisp, crips pink are good options – You want a really juicy one)

1 clove fresh Garlic

1-2 teaspoons Sherry Vinegar

Fine ground kosher salt

Seedless Green Grapes to garnish

Place almonds in a mixing bowl and cover with at least 2” of fresh water. Allow them to soak overnight.

Pour almonds into a single mesh strainer.

Remove crusts from bread and tear into roughly 1” pieces.

Peel, trim, smash and mince garlic.

Peel, core, and chop apple.

Toss bread into a blender vessel and add the water, making sure the bread is covered. Allow that to soak for 15-20 minutes.

Add almonds, apple, and garlic to the blender vessel.

Pile the mix until thoroughly blended and smooth.

Taste and season lightly with salt and vinegar (add vinegar 1/2 teaspoon at a time).

Add the olive oil in a slow, smooth stream while blending the soup on low.

Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Chill for at least 2 hours prior to serving, and up to overnight.

Top with sliced green grapes, if you like, (you will).

A Paean to the Galette

Summer is here, and with it comes the glory of fresh berries. Strawberries are in full swing, blueberries too. Blackberries are flowering, raspberries are coming on fast. When they’re done, apples and grapes and pears will arrive. It’s time, then, for a paean to the galette, not only the easiest, but arguably the most delicious vehicle for all that bounty. And as fate would have it, galettes are stupid simple to make. 

Berry Galette

Galette is an old northern French word, specifically Breton, and while it literally means wafer, it’s come to mean a flat cake or pastry for a long time now – Since the 1300s or so. The Breton version, (one of the oldest), is a buckwheat crepe filled with Emmental cheese, ham, and a fried egg, and it’s freakin’ delicious. Nowadays, both sweet and savory galettes are gaining popularity, which is wonderful news – Given the bounty of garden season, it’s the perfect time to look into these little beasties. 

Breton Galette

Galettes are still expressed as crepes in France, but elsewhere they’re more often goodies wrapped in a pastry crust of some kind. Therein lies the key to the beauty and simplicity of the thing – Stupid simple, as I noted above – All we’re doing here is plopping a bunch of good things in the middle of a sheet of dough, and then folding the edges up so that everything stays put. It looks great, it works, it’s delicious, and you can easily create one as a last minute afterthought – What more could a cook ask for? A galette can be anything from a couple of ingredients to a complex dance of flavors, so they’re not only versatile, they’re great for cleaning out pantry and fridge. Damn near anything goes well baked into a good crust, from berries and stone fruit to cheeses and root veggies.

Alright, so let’s address the stupid simple concept – My real baker friends are gonna cringe at this one, so – sorry, but… Fact is, I keep store bought pie crust, puff pastry, and filo in house at all times. Why? First and foremost, because they’re not all bad – Check labels, and you’ll find plenty of options that are clean. Consumer concern over artificial ingredients has hit this market, and there are plenty of products out there made with good stuff, and they taste pretty good too. Is this option your first choice? Depends – if you’re short on time and want to build something quickly and simply, it may be. If you have a little time and prefer scratch made, (and you always should if you have a little time), then maybe not. Options equal flexibility, and that’s always good. If my Sister, a seriously good cook and cookbook author, has the same in her kitchen, then I’m 100% comfortable with this option. For the record, one of the galette images you see here is store bought dough, and one isn’t – Can you pick out which is which?

On the other hand, making a pie crust from scratch will take about an hour for most of us, and at least half of that is resting time – It’s not a lot of work, ingredients, or trouble, and you’ll get wonderful results. I’ll offer my two favorite variants on method and ingredients, one made with butter and one with lard.

Simple as they are, there’s a few thing to keep in mind when building galettes. Neither your dough nor your filling should be wet. As such, what you use needs to be moist enough to end up tender and flaky, but not too much so, lest it end up a sodden mess. If your dough looks and feels a bit crumbly when you’re rolling it out, that’s fine – Much better that than dough sticking to the pin. Thickness is important too – a galette should be on the thin side of things, but not too thin – 1/8” is just right, so go for that and you’ll be a happy camper. Just keep in mind that 1/8” isn’t very thick in the big picture view, and don’t allow your galette to get overdone – golden brown is what you’re after – not well done toast.

Likewise, your fillings simply cannot be soupy, or even close – If they are, than any caution you applied to your doughs consistency will be for naught. The arrowroot (or cornstarch if that’s what you’ve got) in the recipes will help with this to a good degree nonetheless, avoid overripe, mushy fruit or veggies. If your fruit is lovely, but just bursting with juice, dust the top of your crust with a thin, additional layer of Wondra flour – It’s great stuff for sucking up excess juice. And keep an eye on the ratio of filling to crust – What you’ve got inside can’t be so voluminous that it wants to sneak out over your crust folds. Ratios are considered in the recipes, but every batch of this and that is different, so be vigilant.

Alright, so crust first. Here are the two options I really like and really use.

Vodka Pie Crust – This is brilliant really. The substitution of alcohol for water isn’t there to be sexy, it’s done because the vodka adds moisture to the dough – when it’s baked, booze evaporates faster than water, which leads to a tender, flaky crust pretty much every time. The booze is all cooked off, FYI, so there’s no proof to your galette. You can use other alcohols if you do want a subtle flavor note – Bourbon, rum, gin, and tequila all are great options. 

Vodka Butter Pie Crust

2 1/2 Cups Pastry flour

8 Ounces Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)

1/4 Cup Ice Cold Vodka

1/4 Cup Ice Cold Water

1 teaspoon Salt

Pre-measure vodka and water (together, of course), and let them chill in the freezer for about 15 – 20 minutes prior to processing.

Cut butter into roughly 1/4” cubes, then shove the cut butter into the freezer with your vodka and water to chill again.

Sift flour and salt into a large mixing bowl.

Toss the butter cubes into the flour mix and work quickly and smoothly by hand, reducing each chunk of butter to roughly pea size, making sure they’re all well coated with flour.

Add half the water and vodka to the dry mix and blend it in by hand.

Add half the remaining vodka and water and work that into the dough.

Now grab a golf ball size hunk of dough and give it a good squish. If it’s not holding together well, add a couple of tablespoons more vodka and water and work that in, then give it another test. 

Remember, you don’t want galette dough too wet, so lean a bit to the dry side. One thing I can tell you from years working in a bakery is that dough is different every day – This is why I like working it by hand.

Once you’ve got a dough that’s holding together well but isn’t sticky, divide it into two equal balls, wrap it in parchment or waxed paper, and let it rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

When the rest is done, pull out a dough ball and set it between sheets of waxed paper or parchment. Squish the dough down to a flattish disk about 6” across.

Roll the dough out to close to an even 1/8”.

Send the dough back to the fridge for another 30 minutes.

When you’re ready to go, transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment and load up your galette.

Your other dough ball can be stored in the fridge for 2 or 3 days. Any longer than that and you should freeze it, wrapped tightly into parchment or waxed paper, and then a layer of metal foil – It’ll be good for 3-4 weeks done up like that.

 

Some folks swear by lard, and I’m one of them. There is a distinct caveat here though, and that’s that we’re talking about really good lard – Not the block of shit that comes from most grocery stores – A hydrogenated abomination that tastes like… well never mind. What you want is fresh leaf lard, and with the resurgence of butcher shops and carnicerias throughout the land, it can indeed be had. Check around you, see if you have such a place, call them and see if they make and sell leaf lard. If you have that, you’ve got gold. You can also use shortening for this version if you wish – Some folks like that too.

 

Lard or Shortening Pie Crust

2 1/2 Cups Pastry flour

1 Cup Leaf Lard

5+ Tablespoons Water

1 teaspoon Salt

Cut lard into roughly 1/4” cubes and then chill it, along with your water.

Sift flour and salt in to a large mixing bowl.

Toss the lard cubes into the flour mix and work quickly and smoothly by hand, reducing each chunk of butter to roughly one size and making sure they’re all well coated with flour.

When you’re there, add 4 tablespoons of ice cold water and blend it in.

Now grab a golf ball size hunk of dough and give it a good squish. If it’s not holding together well, add another tablespoon of water and work that in, then give it another test. Keep that going until you hit a consistency that holds together well and isn’t sticky.

Remember, you don’t want galette dough too wet, so lean a bit to the dry side. One thing I can tell you from years working in a bakery is that dough is different every day – This is why I like working it by hand.

Divide your dough into two equal balls, wrap it in parchment or waxed paper, and let it rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

When the rest is done, pull out a dough ball and set it between sheets of waxed paper or parchment. Squish the dough down to a flattish disk about 6” across.

Roll the dough out to close as you can to an even 1/8”.

Send the dough back to the fridge for another 30 minutes.

When you’re ready to go, transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment and load up your galette.

Your other dough ball can be stored in the fridge for 2 or 3 days. Any longer than that and you should freeze it, wrapped tightly into parchment or waxed paper, and then a layer of metal foil – It’ll be good for 3-4 weeks done up like that.

Berry Galette

Berry Galette

I’ve found this recipe to work with damn near any berry – Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, Marion – They all do really nicely with this blend and ratios.

1 Pound fresh Berries

1/4 Cup local Honey (or Agave nectar)

2 Tablespoons Arrowroot

1 small Lemon

1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Purée (or good quality extract)

1 Egg

1 Tablespoon Turbinado Sugar

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

Pinch Salt

Zest lemon and squeeze 1 tablespoon of juice.

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine berries, honey, lemon juice, arrowroot, vanilla, and salt, mix gently but well to fully incorporate.

Crack your egg into a small bowl, add a tablespoon of cold water and whisk to mix thoroughly. You’ll need a pastry brush to apply this, or finger tips if you don’t have one.

Roll a crust out to about 1/8” thickness per above directions. You want a circle about 8” to 9” across.

Lay the rolled dough out on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Spoon the berry mixture onto the middle of the dough, no more than an inch or so thick, leaving 1 1/2” to 2” of dough clear around the edges.

Grab a dough edge and fold it up over the filling a bit. Move left or right as you please and grab another edge of dough. You’re going to fold that slightly over the last one – Dab a little egg wash into that fold to help things stick.

Berry Galettes

Keep going in this manner – Fold a little dough edge up, stick it to its neighbor, and move on. You’ll end up with a galette roughly 6” to 7” around.

Brush the egg was onto all the exposed dough, then sprinkle the turbinado sugar on the dough.

Cut butter into roughly 1/8” dots and sprinkle those over the exposed berries.

Sprinkle the lemon zest over the berries.

Bake on a middle rack, at 375° F for 25 to 35 minutes, until the galette dough is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling nicely.

Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

Berry Galettes

Devour.

Savory Galette

Here’s a fave savory version for you to try as well. Filling and baking process is the same as for sweet galettes.

Roasted Potato & Cheddar Galette

2 Medium Yellow Potatoes

1/2 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese

2 large Eggs

3-4 sprigs fresh Cilantro

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

Salt

Fresh ground Pepper

 

Set a rack to a middle position and preheat oven to 375° F.

Pour a little oil on a paper towel and lightly grease a baking pan.

Cut potatoes into roughly 1/4” thick disks.

Toss the potato rounds into a large mixing bowl, then add the oil, garlic, onion, and a couple pinches of salt, with a few twists of pepper. Toss everything by hand to get the potato rounds well coated with oil and seasoning.

Arrange potato rounds on the baking sheet in a single layer.

Bake potatoes until they’re almost fork tender, (kinda al dente) – About 12 to 15 minutes.

Chifonade cut cilantro.

Remove spuds from the oven and sprinkle them with the lemon thyme, then let them cool enough to handle.

Crack the eggs into a small bowl and whisk to scramble.

Grate cheddar.

Line a baking pan with parchment.

Roll out a roughly 8” to 9” circle of pie dough (see above for recipes), and transfer to the parchment lined baking pan.

Brush egg wash onto the exposed side of the dough.

Add a layer of spud disks to the dough, leaving 1 1/2” to 2” of dough bare.

Brush the spuds generously with the egg wash.

Add a layer of grated cheese, and about half the cilantro.

Add remaining spuds and cheese and cilantro in a second layer.

Brush egg was onto the second layer.

Grab a dough edge and fold it up over the filling a bit. Move left or right as you please and grab another edge of dough. You’re going to fold that slightly over the last one – Dab a little egg wash into that fold to help things stick.

Keep going in this manner – Fold a little dough edge up, stick it to its neighbor, and move on. You’ll end up with a galette roughly 6” to 7” around.

Brush the egg wash onto all the exposed dough.

Bake until the dough is golden brown and the filling is bubbling nicely, about 15 – 20 minutes. 

Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

If it were me, I’d throw an over easy egg on top of my slice…

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.

Blanching & Freezing Fresh Peas

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Three years ago almost to the day, I posted this, and here we are full circle. Enjoy!

Received this PM earlier today, from alert and hearteningly honest reader Sarah, who lives in the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio.

‘Recently saw the photos of your wife’s garden. It just so happens that I planted peas for the first time this year, and lo and behold, they actually grew! I ended up harvesting a big pot, and then realized that I really don’t know the step by step for preserving these things! Naturally, I though of you, so, what do I do?!’

Well, Sarah, first and foremost, I hope you know how much it thrills us that you thought of us first with such a great question. Secondly, good on ya for asking, and third, your timing couldn’t be better – Monica and our two lovely Granddaughters picked a whoppin’ big bowl full of fresh peas last night – They’ve headed for the park, and I’ve been tasked with pea processing – so let’s get after it!

Freezing really is the best thing to do with fresh peas. You didn’t mention the variety you grew, so first we’ll touch briefly on the three most common versions, shell, snow, and sugar snap. Shell, (also called garden, English, or Sweet), are thin skinned peas with an inedible shell. Snow peas, (also called Chinese pea pods), are smaller peas with a thicker, edible pod. Sugar snaps, (or just plain snap), peas are a cross between the former and the latter, with a very thick, edible pod and relatively large mature peas.

Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.
Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.

For both snow and snap varieties, while you can and should eat some whole when they’re just picked, it’s best to remove the fibrous strings that run along the seams before you do so.

Regardless of what variety you’ve grown, you’ll want to freeze them. Canning peas is laborious, and frankly, doesn’t yield very good taste or appearance. Shell peas must, of course, be shelled prior to freezing. Snow peas can be frozen whole, as long as they’re blanched first – If you don’t do that process diligently, you’ll end up with nasty, mushy results.

With snap peas, I’ve found that whole peas just don’t freeze very well; they’re really delicate things, which is why their freshness is so fleeting. For my mind, it’s best to eat and cook whole peas at the peak of their freshness, and to shell anything you’re going to freeze. Don’t toss the pods however; sauté them in a stir fry, or better yet, make a pea stock, which makes a phenomenal base for split pea soup. Here’s how.

Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup
Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup

Snap Pea Stock

10 Cups Water
4-6 Cups empty Snap Pea Pods
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Carrot, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons Celeriac or Celery Leaf
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Bay Leaf

Put everything in a large stockpot over medium high heat.

As soon as the stock begins to simmer, cover and reduce the heat until you’ve got a very slow simmer; cook for 45 minutes.

Pour the stock carefully through a chinoise, or a colander lined with cheese cloth into a clean mixing bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to clean glass jars, or a freezer bag. May be frozen for up to 4 months, or refrigerated for 3-4 days prior to use.

Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant and lovely stuff to boot
Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant, flavorful, and lovely stuff to boot

To preserve those peas, you’ll need to shell them. As with all production cooking processes, set yourself up an area where you can have everything arranged right at hand. To shell fresh peas, grab one and turn it wide seam side up, with the stem away from you. Grab the stem between thumb and forefinger, and zip it back toward you – that’ll remove the fiber along the seam. Now zip your thumb nail along the seam and viola, your pea will open up like a book. Push the peas out of the pod and into a mixing bowl.

Now it’s time to blanch. There are a lot of questions about blanching, and most, if not all of them are answered here at one of my favorite cooking sites, serious eats. Blanching is a short, high temperature cooking cycle done in boiling water, followed by an immediate plunge into ice water. We blanch for three reasons when – To
destroy enzymes that begin to break produce down once they’ve been harvested, to preserve great color, and to keep them crisp – All very worthwhile pursuits, indeed.

The fine print for blanching is that you want two things without question – First, you need water at a steady boil through the relatively short cooking time, and secondly, you need to plunge what you blanched into ice water immediately after cooking. Those things are non-negotiable for the success of the process.

The old adage about using lots of water to blanch really doesn’t translate all that well to home kitchens – The logic ran that a relatively large volume of water won’t lose temperature as drastically when food is introduced. That’s true for commercial stoves, but not so much for home cooks – If you’re blanching in small batches at home, a pot with one quart, (4 cups), of water will actually recover a boil far faster than larger volumes.

Second issue is salting. The sages say ‘salt heavily’, and to some degree, that’s true. You want water about as salty as the ocean, or about 3%. The wonderful website Pickl-It has a super handy brine calculator that’ll let you dial that right in, (and its 1 ounce of salt for 1 quart of water). Now, this requires weighing, because the fact is, all salt weighs differently. I can’t recommend a small kitchen scale enough – They’re cheap, easy to use, and if you get at all serious about baking, you’ll want to have one anyway. I’ll give you a cheat and tell you that 1 ounce of the most popular kosher salt is roughly 5 teaspoons. While Harold McGee notes in his epic reference volume, On Food and Cooking, that salt tenderizes veggies by interacting with natural pectins, this also means that too much can make your peas soft.

Finally, there’s time. I don’t know how many folks I’ve heard say that you ‘blanch for about a minute,’ and frankly, that dog just don’t hunt. Blanching time varies depending on what’s being blanched, and you should pay attention to that. The Reluctant Gourmet has published a great blanching time list, so head over there, read and heed.

OK, now we’re ready. It’s possible I just made blanching sound really laborious, but it’s not at all. Set up a station so everything is close at hand. You’ll want a stock pot of salted water, a large bowl with ice water, and a single mesh strainer handy.

Everything set up to blanch
Everything set up to blanch

Shelled peas do indeed blanch for about a minute. For peas, corn, and a whole lot of veggies that are small individual things, I add about a half tablespoon of butter to the blanching water. It doesn’t impart much taste, and it helps them freeze without turning into a block of peas or whatnot.

A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate
A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate

Once your water is boiling merrily, throw in those shelled peas and count off a minute. As soon as the time is up, carefully pour the peas into a single mesh strainer and immediately into the ice water. Work the peas around gently with a slotted spoon to help them cool. Let them sit in the ice water for about 3 minutes, until they’re thoroughly cooled. Scoop off any remaining ice, pour the peas back through the strainer, then transfer them to a clean mixing bowl. Viola – bright, crisp blanched peas.

Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas blanched and ready for the freezer

Now it’s time to package for freezing. A vacuum sealer is the bomb for such things, but not everybody has or really needs one. Next best thing is a nice, heavy freezer ziplock style bag. Portion the peas into bags based on your anticipated use – I portion for two, as you can always whip out an extra bag for guests. Seal about 90% of the bag, then suck all the air out that you can, and zip it all the way closed while you’re still sucking. That’ll do about as good a job as possible to deter freezer burn and keep things fresh. Label your stuff with the date, pop them in the freezer and you’re good to go.

Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas ready for the freezer

So, there you go, Sarah – Maybe more than you asked for, but hey – You got me started! Happy preserving.

Mexican Chorizo

Last week’s queso featured Mexican chorizo, and I found myself bummed out that I didn’t have room to expand on this truly delightful member of the international sausage family. Since it’s grilling season, and something new is far more exiting than the same old, same old, I think it’s high time we checked it out in depth. While it certainly has its roots in Spain, Mexican chorizo is unique – a perfect reflection of the big, bold flavors that define cocina Mexicana – So let’s dive in.

First off, the differences between Spanish and Mexican chorizo are broad, (and like the ongoing battle over ‘real’ manchego cheese, both sides pretty much disdain the other’s version). Spanish chorizo is a cured, chopped pork sausage with a lot of paprika therein, which gives it its trademark color. These are stuffed sausages in an edible casing, almost always smoked, which adds to its signature flavor profile. As paprika is offered in hot, sweet, and bitter, so is Spanish chorizo. Other variants include garlic and fresh herbs, or Spanish wine. Size varies based on where the stuff comes from. The lion’s share of Spanish chorizo is eaten as is, with bread and wine and cheese, or added to tapas plates. It is used in Spanish cooking as well, added to soups, and stews, and paella. 

Loosely based on Spanish chorizo fresco, (the uncurled fresh version), Mexican chorizo has evolved into a wide range of fresh and cured sausages – Mostly fresh though. What started out as a purely pork powered thing now encompasses beef, game, poultry, and vegetarian/vegan options. Local varieties often reflect a specific historical or ethnic consideration of a given area – It’s fascinating and delicious stuff. Mexican chorizo is ground, not chopped, and the fuel for its (usually) signature red color are chiles of considerably higher octane than the Spanish stuff. Regardless of what the main protein is, pork fat is often added, along with generous slugs of vinegar, and other herbs and spices. These guys are almost always relatively short links, air dried for anywhere from a day to a week. 

Since it’s uncured, Mexican chorizo needs to be cooked. It’s probably safe to say that, more often than not, the sausage is sliced open and removed from its casing before cooking, then used as a loose meat filling for tacos, eggs, tortas, soups, and stews. That said, plenty of this stuff is grilled and eaten as is, too, but since so much Mexican chorizo is eaten loose, you won’t always find these made with natural, or necessarily edible casings – That’s a thing to keep in mind and ask your local carniceria about – but for the record, most mass market chorizo found in grocery stores is sold loose, and it’s the really cheap stuff that comes in casings you can’t (and shouldn’t) eat.

In Mexico and savvy parts of los Estados Unidos, chorizo might show up at any time of day – breakfast, lunch, or dinner. For breakfast, chorizo con huevos is delicious, as is chorizo con papas – potatoes diced and fried with chorizo. For lunch, chorizo con frijoles refritos, (refried beans), is a popular spread for tortas – The sublime Mexican sandwich. For dinner, chorizo might be added to tacos, or whipped into queso as we did last week, and served on fresh corn tortillas. 

So what about those varieties? For us up here in El Norte, the version we’re probably accustomed to is the chorizo most popular in the northern and central highlands, the altiplano. It’s that brick red, notably spicy stuff, with readily discernible notes of vinegar, chile heat, garlic, and herbs like cumin, Mexican oregano, and thyme. That said, almost everybody makes their own, and has their own recipe, so you know the drill – You should try some you like, ask about what’s in it, (because the good places and people will tell you), and develop your very own favorite.

House made chorizo

Chorizo from the Yucatán is also a deep red, mostly from the addition of achiote paste – a sublime mix of annatto seed, cumin, chipotle, allspice, and nutmeg. It’s moistened with naranja agria, (sour orange), and sometimes banana vinegar, flaunting its Caribbean roots.

Chorizo Norteño - Probably what you’ve tried

Chorizo Norteño is likely the most high octane version you’ll ever try, fueled with arbol, and/or birds eye chiles, both of which pack a serious wallop. It’s more about heat than herbal, and it’s often grilled whole and eaten that way.

Fresh chorizo seco
Fresh chorizo seco

Chorizo Seco is usually offered as a drier version of whatever the locals make, with maybe a more pronounced vinegar note, (it’s the most often used preservative for cured sausages). It may come as anything from still quite fresh and cookable as a loose sausage, to something very dry and more like Spanish chorizo in consistency – either way, the soul of it will most definitely be Mexican. If you’ve got a local carniceria, ask, or look around and see if you see anything hanging to dry.

Chorizo Verde - Not just another pretty face

Chorizo Verde is something really special. It’s the signature food of Toluca, a valley and namesake city due west of Ciudad de Mexico, and widely lauded as the chorizo capital of Mexico. This stuff is simply heavenly, deriving its color and flavor from healthy doses of green chiles, tomatillos, cilantro, and garlic.

Loganiza - OK, if you like offal...

Longaniza is indeed chorizo, but it’s the cheap seats, made from offal rather than shoulder or butt. Its texture is closer to Spanish chorizo, and it too is sometimes aged. It tends to be very chile heavy, perhaps in an effort to balance out the offal funk.

Chistorra is interesting stuff – It’s a Basque speciality that migrated with expats to the area around Mexico City. It translates well to Mexico, because it includes extra pork fat and healthy doses of paprika and garlic.

Chorizo Obispo - It’s not brains...

Chorizo Obispo, (Bishop’s chorizo),  was supposedly once made from brains, (and was even called rellena de sesos back then), though there’s no evidence I could find to support that claim – I suspect it was a ruse used to freak out squeamish kids. It’s a pork sausages reinforced with fat, and flavored with tomato and onion, chiles, garlic, and epazote.

Moronga - Mexican Blood Sausage

Moronga is Mexico’s version of blood sausage, and if you like such things, it’s a good one. This too features tomato and onion, backed by mint, oregano, and garlic. There’s not that much blood in the good stuff – enough to color things appropriately, but not so much that the signature metallic flavor note dominates.

Although they’re not chorizo, per se, I have to mention salchidas, AKA frankfurters, because they are a forcemeat sausage, and they are really quite ubiquitous in Mexican home cooking these days. There’s nothing special about them, really – They’re found down south made from beef, pork, chicken and occasionally godknowswhat, just like up here. The interesting thing is that you’ll actually find them in recipes titled ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional,’ and as such, ya gotta respect that – And I really do respect a good hot dog, especially when it’s got chiles, onions, and a shot of hot sauce on board. 

What I’ll say at this point is that you should get out there, try what’s available to you, determine what’s in it, decide what you like or don’t about that, and then tweak things to make them your own. We make chorizo here at the house from whatever cut we’re using, run through the grinder attachment for our Kitchenaid mixer, which does a fine job indeed. If you own the mixer, the grinder attachment is not expensive – $35 for a perfectly serviceable plastic unit, to $89 for a really nice, heavy duty stainless version, and all of those will include what you need to stuff casings, too. Casings can be found online, or from your local butcher or carniceria. If you eat meat, you want one of these frankly. If nothing else, you’ll make the price of the attachment up pretty quick with the ability to make some pretty fancy stuff at home – And it’s easy and fun to do. 

Of course you can readily find fresh ground pork, beef, chicken, turkey, and sometimes even game locally, so if you’re not up for grinding your own, save time and just buy what you like. Considering that most Mexican chorizo doesn’t require curing, and is most often eaten loose, you won’t be missing a thing. If you’ve never gone up to your local grocery store meat counter to ask what they can and will do with what they sell, you should – These folks generally know their stuff, and truly dig working with people who love to cook – Something as simple as, ‘If I buy pork shoulder, can you grind that for me,’ will usually get an enthusiastic ‘you betcha’ response. 

A note on acquiring pork fat – This can be easy or hard depending on where you live. The less shopping diversity around you, the harder it is to find. Ask your local meat counter, butcher, or carniceria if they sell it, as many happily will. Before you ask, no – you cannot sub lard for pork fat when making sausage – It will liquify and make your sausage a mushy mass of ickiness. In any event, if you buy pork with any frequency, and then trim your own when you’re prepping it, (which, by all the food gods, you better be doing), then save the fat and fatty trimmings. It’ll freeze just fine if properly packaged, and you can then grind or mince up what you need. 

As I mentioned above, there are vegetarian and vegan version of chorizo, so there’s nothing holding you back from making your own versions of those as well. Adding whatever you like for a protein or protein sub can easily be done in a 1:1 ratio for starters. Fresh, firm tofu is amazingly delicious stuff, and makes fantastic sausages. Wild rice and beans seasoned as whatever chorizo you like is also sublime, as is something a bit more exotic, like pulled jackfruit. Firm roasted veggies, like cauliflower does a great job, too. If you’re into it, get into it.

Rather than provide a bunch of recipes, I’m going to offer just two – One red and one green – my go to’s for chorizo. For anything else, (and I mean anything, from virtually anywhere in the world), I’ll turn y’all on to one of my secret (not) sources for all things charcuterie – It’s a website called Wedliny Domowe, (The English language version is found at meatsandsausages.com), a labor of love by Polish sausage maker and wunderkind Miroslaw Gebarowski. There, you’ll find a vast resource of recipes and information that are accurate, thorough, lovingly researched and shared, and generally sized for folks like us. Look up any of the stuff I referenced above and you’ll be on your way. And remember, please –  a recipe is a guideline at best. It’ll show you ingredients, proportions, and process, but you really do need to make that your own – Anybody who posts a recipe and gets upset if you tweak it isn’t really there to share, anyway…

 

Chorizo de Urban

NOTES – 

1. This recipe requires overnight refrigeration to come to full fruition – Plan accordingly.

2. As usual, there are variances in some of the ingredients – Here, it’s chiles. While the recipe requires some to be correct, how much is quite up to your personal taste.

2 Lbs ground Pork (if you’re doing your own, I use shoulder or butt)

6 ounces ground Pork Fat

1 Cup Cider Vinegar

2-4 Tablespoons Chipotle Chile flake

2-4 Tablespoons dried Ancho Chile (whole dried or powder)

2-4 Tablespoons dried Guajillo Chile (whole dried or powder)

4-6 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon Salt

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

4 whole Cloves

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

1/2 teaspoon Coriander Seed

1/2 teaspoon Cumin 

1/2 teaspoon Allspice 

1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

2 whole Bay Leaves (I like Turkish)

If using whole dried chiles, place them and the dried chipotle flake in a non-reactive bowl and cover with at least 2” of boiling water. 

Allow the chiles to steep until softened, 20-30 minutes. drain, stem, and skin soaked chiles and rough chop.

Whether or not you’re using whole or ground herbs and spices, combine them all in a spice grinder or molcajete y metate and grind to an even mix, (and yeah, you can throw the bay leaf in there too).

Peel and trim garlic cloves, and cut into quarters.

Add chiles, garlic, and vinegar to a blender vessel and process to a smooth mix.

In a large non-reactive bowl, combine ground pork, pork fat, herb and spice blend, and chile purée. Mix by hand to thoroughly combine all ingredients.

Tightly cover the bowl and refrigerate for up to 24 hours – This allows the flavors to marry and fully develop, and is critical to real deal chorizo.

Next day, your chorizo is ready to go. It can be frozen if packaged properly (no air, tightly wrapped), or processed into casing if you’re equipped/so desire.

I won’t elaborate on stuffing casings here, because frankly, we rarely do it with this chorizo. Check below in the chorizo verde recipe for instructions if you’re fired up to do it.

 

Urban Chorizo Verde

NOTES – 

1. This recipe requires overnight refrigeration to come to full fruition – Plan accordingly.

2. As usual, there are variances in some of the ingredients – Here, it’s chiles. While the recipe requires some to be correct, how much is quite up to your personal taste.

2 Pounds ground Pork (Shoulder or Butt is my preference.)

6 Ounces ground Pork Fat

1/2 Pound fresh Tomatillos

1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar

2 fresh Poblano Chiles

2-4 fresh Serrano Chiles

2 Tablespoons Chipotle Chile flake

1 Tablespoon ground Guajillo Chile

1 Bunch fresh Cilantro (about 3 ounces)

3 fat cloves fresh Garlic

2 teaspoons Coriander Seed (whole or ground)

2 teaspoons Salt

1 teaspoon Cumin Seed (whole or ground)

1 teaspoon fresh ground black Pepper

Place Chipotle flake in a non-reactive bowl and cover with at least an inch of boiling water. Let them step for 15 minutes, until softened.

Remove husks from tomatillos and slice in half.

Peel and trim garlic, leave cloves whole.

Place tomatillos, whole chiles, and garlic on a baking sheet, on an upper middle oven rack.

Broil veggies until the chile skins are charred and tomatillos are bubbling.

Remove from oven and let cool enough to handle.

Stem and skin roasted chiles.

If you’re using whole spices, grind them to uniform powder.

Mince a lightly packed cup of cilantro.

Combine vinegar, chiles, drained chipotle flake, guajillo powder, garlic, cilantro, tomatillos and spices in a blender vessel and process until you get a smooth, thick paste.

In a large, non-reactive bowl, combine pork, pork fat, and the seasoning paste. Mix by hand to fully incorporate.

Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.

Your verde is now ready to cook, freeze, or stuff.

To Stuff Fresh Sausage into Casings – 

What casings you buy are up to you – Natural are a bit fussier than manmade. Some people don’t like the fact that natural casings are intestines, while others don’t like the fact that the other stuff is manmade. There are edible and inedible manmade casings – namely collagen, fibrous, and cellulose. For chorizo, I use and highly recommend the 30mm clear edible collagen casings, which I buy from Butcher and Packer online. They don’t require soaking, are easy to use, don’t smell, and have a very low footprint on your finished product. Enough to stuff 14 pounds of sausage will cost you five bucks. If you go to their website and search for that term, you’ll find them, along with all the other varieties and decent explanations of the pros and cons of each.

You’ll need only a portion of casing – 3 feet or so will be plenty. Measure off a length of casing, cut it, and tie a double knot in the end.

You want your sausage very cold before you stuff – Doing this operation heats up the ingredients somewhat, and we need to counter that as much as possible – Don’t pull the meat out until you’re truly ready to rock.

Set up a work station – Mixer, bowl of sausage, clean catch surface – something to hold finished product, like a clean sheet pan. Best case scenario is to work with a helper, who can keep the sausage flowing while you focus on filling the casing.

When you’re ready to go, carefully slide all but a couple inches of casing over the sausage stuffer nozzle.

Fill the reservoir on the grinder/stuffer attachment with sausage.

Turn the mixer on to a low setting, 2 at the most – If you’re flying solo, use one hand for the tamper, to press the mix down into the attachment, and keep your other hand on the casing, right at the tip of the nozzle.

As the casing starts to fill, let it do so as fully as possible, but not to the pint of stretching the casing at all. The collagen casings are not as flexible as natural, and if you overfill them, they will certainly burst when cooked.

Keep adding sausage and filling casing, working slowly but steadily.

When you’ve filled all you’ve got, lay the coil of sausage on your clean work surface. Chorizo should be about 5” or so in length, so measure that out, and twist the casing at that point. 

Measure another 5” and twist in the opposite direction, and so on, until you’re done.

Use dried corn husk (you can get that from a good Latin grocery), or butchers twine, tie a knot at each twist, and cut the ends short.

Use a clean toothpick to randomly prick the casings down the whole length, which will let any trapped air escape.

Ideally, you’d like to hang your chorizo in a clean, cool place for a day, but that’s not always easy in this modern world. We do a jury rigged set up in our fridge which works just fine – Make sure you have a drip tray under your chorizo, as some vinegar will make its way out during the shirt drying process.

Now your links are ready to go – You can grill, or freeze as you please. If you’ve got a vacuum sealer, this is a great job for that – Air is the enemy when freezing chorizo. Refrigerated, it’s good for 2-3 days, but don’t push uncured fresh sausage any farther than that.

Enjoy.

Esto es Queso Fundido

It’s a safe bet that, for as long as humans have been eating cheese, they’ve been doing so by melting the stuff and scooping up the results with something else that’s tasty. That’s done in some form or another all over the cheese eating world, but for my mind, the most sublime and delicioso dish in this regard comes from Mexico – Esto es Queso Fundido.

Queso Fundido de Urban

Since the Belyy Dom recently threatened to further screw with imports from our southern neighbors, I thought it appropriate to highlight the wealth of all great things cheesy that comes from Mexico. This is also a good time to point out some important misunderstandings about what’s a genuine Mexican dish and what’s purely Tex Mex.

So, let’s swing for the fence right off the bat – Anything made with some version of American cheese, (Velveeta, Super Melt, Extra Melt, whatever), is not Mexican food in any way, shape, or form. Yes, a lot of restaurants use this stuff, (even ones that say they make Mexican food – Keep in mind who they’re feeding…) Yes, in Texas queso really is widely made with it. Yes, after a beer or three, queso made of  nothing but Velveeta and a can of Rotel diced tomatoes and chopped green chiles tastes pretty damn good – But it’s not Mexican food, and that’s that. It’s also not just cheese variety that speaks to authenticity, it’s the volume, or proportion, per dish. Generally speaking, Mexican cooking uses cheese as a balanced part of a dish or meal – It’s not something buried under half a pound of molten goo – That’s a purely American affectation.

What is the Real Deal, then? Queso fundido, or sometimes queso flameado, would be it. Fundido means melted, flameado means flambé. Both are genuinely served down south in taquerias and restaurants. Fundido is pretty common, often in play at home for using up this and that from fridge or pantry, while flameado is done more for show or special occasions, (and it is it spectacular – Go to Benito’s in Fort Worth and you’ll see what I mean.) Fundido in restaurants is probably more popular up in the northern part of Mexico. 

Mise en place for queso fundido

Typically, you’ll see a blend of cheeses mixed with chorizo, chiles, tomato, onion, maybe cilantro and garlic, depending on what’s good or needs to get used. Traditional preparation calls for the cheese and the adjuncts to be cooked separately and mixed just prior to serving. Chorizo and veggies are most often sautéed, while the cheese might be prepared via stove top, oven, or broiler. Fundido or flameado are most often served with fresh tortillas as an appetizer, or as a condiment for primary dishes.

There’s somewhere around 40 unique varieties of Mexican queso down there, and they’re every bit as nuanced and delicious as cheese from anywhere else. Sure, cheese came to Mexico because of invading Spaniards and their cows, sheep, and goats, but hey – the locals made the best of it, and they still are – much to our benefit. There are varieties you can find almost anywhere in Mexico, like Queso Fresco, Panela, and Oaxaca, but there are far more that are truly regional, and home cheesemaking is still pretty widespread. Today there are at least a dozen major cheese producing states and regions. Most of the output comes from raw cows milk, (albeit the mass produced stuff is pasteurized), with a little bit here and there from sheep and goats – And there are efforts underway to increase the output and variety of non-cows milk cheeses.

Until quite recently, finding good quality, genuine Mexican cheese up here in los Estados Unidos was not all that easy, but that’s changing. In a lot of grocery chains, you’ll discover a few mainstays offered, and if your town is graced with a good Latin grocery or two, you’ll probably find a lot more. This Sunday morning, I stepped into the La Gloria market in Bellingham, Washington and found a thriving, vibrant store packed with great stuff, (including a fantastic carniceria). At first I was the only white person in there, (always a good sign), but then a father and two young sons arrived, and I watched Pop present his eldest to the counter, where he did a fine job ordering in halting Spanish – Very cool indeed. After working with the counter guy for a bit, he told me that most of the cheese they offer is imported from Mexico, but there are good queseros establishing themselves here in the states, which is very good news.

Alright, so – assuming that you can find decent Mexican queso, what would you want for stellar fundido? There’s a wealth of great melting cheeses that will fit the bill. Here’s my short list, along with reasonable substitutions in parenthesis.

Asadero (Provolone) – This is a slightly chewy fresh cheese with a nice tang. It melts really well, so it’s great for fundido, (or for chiles relleños).

Chihuahua (Jack) – This is my personal fave. From the state of the same name, and sometimes called Menonita in honor of the Mennonite farmers who first introduced it, good Chihuahua is like Jack cheese used (and aught) to be. Fresh it’s like a tangy mild cheddar with a very light bite – aged it sports a deep and complex tang.

Enchilado (Parmesan) – tangy, aged cheese rolled in paprika, that gets crumblier as it gets older – It’s like cotija that’s tastier, less salty and better at melting. Adds a really nice depth to a blend.

Manchego (Jack or Asiago) – The Mexican swing on the famous Spanish variety, this is a semi-firm cheese with a nice nutty flavor that melts very well. It’s a cows milk cheese, as opposed to the sheep milk Spanish version – The fireworks between the two countries over this topic are truly something.

Oaxaca (Mozzarella) – produced in balls as Mozz is, it’s a mild tasty cheese and a great melter.

My thoughts now turn to what you want from this dish when you make it. If you’re intending to eat everything you make right away, then there’s no need to consider the longevity of the final product. If on the other hand, you want queso that you can keep in the fridge for a few days and pull out for quick use, an alternative recipe is in order – I’ve provided the kicker to make that happen as well. Finally, if you want to try a hand at flameado, there’s a recipe for that, too – Just be bloody careful, (and don’t be ripped when you prepare it). It is not necessary to do the table presentation flaming and mixing trick, and I’ll strongly urge you not to try that, it’s all to often a recipe for disaster – What you’ll get is a lovely, smoky note from the tequila. 

Fresh chorizo seco
Fresh chorizo seco

Final note – Chorizo is not necessary for great queso, but it is a delight. Mexican chorizo is a whole different animal than Spanish – There are a bunch of varieties, and every one I’ve tried is great. Unlike the Spanish stuff, which is a hard, cured sausage, Mexican chorizo is a fresh product, perfect for grilling solo, adding to queso, or for tacos, and anything else you like. If you’ve got a good carniceria near you, I’ll guarantee they make it, so snag some. 

Tacos de chorizo con queso

Queso Fundido de Urban

1 Cup Queso Chihuahua 

1/3 Cup Queso Asadero

1/3 Cup Queso Manchego

1/3 Cup Queso Enchilado 

2-4 fresh Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles (sub 1-2 mild Hatch, Anaheim, or even sweet bells, if you don’t want heat)

1 small Sweet or Yellow Onion

2 fresh Roma Tomatoes

2-3 cloves fresh Garlic

3-6 stems fresh Cilantro

1 Cup cold Chicken Stock

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot (Corn Starch is OK for a sub)

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil

Salt and freshly ground Pepper

Optional: 1/2 Pound fresh Chorizo (Or Chorizo Seco if you can get it)

 

Grate and portion all cheeses.

Stem, trim, and if necessary, field strip chiles, then dice.

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Peel, trim and dice 1/2 onion, (I like about a cup of diced – Your mileage may vary).

Dice tomatoes (leave them whole and dice – The liquid is a good thing).

Fine dice the cilantro, stems and all.

If including, cook the chorizo in a heavy skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat – Again, you can incorporate this into the queso, per the steps below, or leave it solo – It’s up to you.

Fresh chorizo seco

Combine arrowroot and cold Chicken stock in a mixing bowl and whisk to completely dissolve and incorporate.

Sautéing the veggie mix for queso fundido

Add avocado oil to the hot pan and heat through. Add chiles and onion and sauté until the onion starts to brown slightly, about 2-4 minutes.

Sautéing the veggie mix for queso fundido

Add the tomato and sauté until they start to break down slightly, about 2-3 minutes more.

Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 1 minute.

Add the arrowroot slurry to the veggie mix and stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate thoroughly – Continue mixing until the sauce starts to thicken, about 1 minute.

Giving the condensed milk and arrowroot slurry a minute to thicken

Add the cheese in batches, (1/3 to 1/2 Cup at a time), and stir to incorporate thoroughly.

Stir the cheeses into the queso in small batches

If using, add the chorizo to the queso with a slotted spoon and stir to incorporate thoroughly.

Let the queso simmer for about 3-5 minutes so everything heats through and marries nicely.

Queso Fundido de Urban

Serve in a shallow bowl with fresh tortillas, or chips, with fresh pico de gallo, or as a side for tacos, enchiladas, chimis, what have you. If you can get (or make) fresh corn tortillas, that’s what you want. 

To make fresh corn chips, preheat oven to 375° F. Cut tortillas into even 6ths, and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet, and season lightly with salt. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until top side starts to brown, then flip the chips and bake for another 8-10 until golden brown and crispy. Serve hot.

For the Extended Dance Version of Queso –  Substitute 1 Cup of Evaporated Milk for the water, add the arrowroot to that, and whisk until arrowroot is fully dissolved. Proceed as per the recipe the rest of the way. The addition of the milk will create a queso that will stay more liquid instead of seizing up as the cheese cools – Will keep in an airtight refrigerated container for 3-5 days, and makes for easy reheating, or even room temp chowing.

For the Flameado – Add 1/4 Cup Reposado or Anejo tequila to the finished queso while it’s still in the skillet. Flame with a match and allow the alcohol to burn off as it does its magic on the top surface of the queso. Always add booze from a separate cup – Never straight from the bottle! And okay, if you really must, you can flame on and then bring it to the table while she’s still lit, but be bloody careful, for Pete’s sake!

Quick and Easy Strawberry Rhubarb Bars

I’ll freely admit, I love strawberries and rhubarb together, and right now, t’is the season here in western Washington state. The you-pick fields are in play for the former, and the latter is fat and sassy pretty much everywhere. Seems like a good time for a quick and easy strawberry rhubarb bar.

I love the concept of dessert –  something a little rich, a little sweet – just right to finish off a meal. What I don’t love is stuff that’s too sweet or too much. Dessert should put a cap on a great meal, not bury it. I think that’s why I like small bites of something with distinct tartness, as much or more than sweet – That makes dessert more like a between course palate cleanser than anything, and I guess that’s why I love the combination of strawberries and rhubarb.

Stopping for fresh berries

Strawberries, even at their most glorious ripeness, still have that slightly sour, tangy note that makes them far more interesting than sweet alone. The problem with them is the fact that you can get them year round, which translates to the fact that they suck a lot of the time. April through June, pretty much wherever you are, is the natural peak season for them, and that’s when I get excited.

Stopping for fresh berries

I stopped by our closest provider this morning and grabbed a quart, fresh from the field, which is right beside the sales shack. In the image below, you’ve got fresh local berries to the left and production grocery store berries to the right. Obvious differences, right? The store bought berries look spectacular – big and uniform. They also happen to not taste half as good as the worst berry in that locally picked quart, so…

Fresh local berries versus big store stuff - No contest

Rhubarb is, culinarily, a bit mysterious. Where it first came from is basically unknown – It showed up as a vegetable crop in Europe and Scandinavia in the early 18th century – before that, it was grown medicinally, mostly for digestive issues. And it is a vegetable engaged in fruit-like activity, by the way – it’s kinda like the mirror image of tomatoes in that regard. As far as availability goes, there’s hot house grown and farm grown, and you want the latter, without question. Better yet, grow your own – both strawberries and rhubarb really like full sun, so you can plant a mixed bed of deliciousness that’ll look great to boot. Rhubarb pairs well with raspberries, marion berries, blackberries, and blueberries too, FYI.

Fresh rhubarb

Just as with celery, you want rhubarb stalks that are firm and maybe 1” to 1 1/2” thick, with smaller leaves, if you can find them with such. If they’re floppy, or dry and somewhat hollow in the middle, they’re no good. Rhubarb stalks can be eaten raw – They’re like celery in texture, but with a very strong, bitter-tart taste – really quite delightful in a salad. Contrary to common belief, the color doesn’t really matter – Because of variety, they may be green, red, speckled, or pink – If they’re well grown, tasty varieties, and fresh, they’ll be good to eat. We do not eat the leaves, however – they contain high concentration of oxalis acid, which will cause catastrophic liver failure in humans.

I love pie, but it doesn’t last long, and it’s not always conducive to a quick, small snack – So I really like these bars as an alternative. They’re super easy to make, and they store and transport well. This recipe will make a batch big enough for a 9” x 13” baking pan, yielding roughly 16-20 large bars. You can cut the recipe in half for a smaller run if you like.

 

Urban’s Strawberry Rhubarb Bars

2 Cups Steel Cut Rolled Oats

2 Cups fine diced Rhubarb

2 Cups fine diced Strawberries 

1 1/2 Cups Pastry Flour (All Purpose will do)

1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar

12 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter (1 1/2 sticks)

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar (or good local Honey, as you prefer)

1 small fresh Lemon

1 small fresh Orange

2 teaspoons Arrowroot

1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Bean Paste (good quality extract is fine)

1/2 teaspoon Salt

 

Preheat oven to 375° F and set a rack in the middle slot.

You don’t need to grease or flour the pan for these bars – There’s enough fat in the recipe to do the job just fine.

building strawberry rhubarb bars

Measure the oats, the flour, the brown sugar, and the salt and toss those all into the baking pan. Mix by hand to thoroughly incorporate.

building strawberry rhubarb bars

In a sauce pan over low heat, melt the butter.

Pour melted butter over the bar mixture.

building strawberry rhubarb bars

Mix by hand, (or with a wooden spoon if you prefer – I like to feel what’s going on), to incorporate the butter, until the batter starts to clump. If the batter feels really soft and sticky, add a couple more tablespoons of flour to firm things up.

Reserve a one cup measure of the batter, then evenly press the remaining into the base of the baking pan.

Zest lemon and orange, cut both into quarters. Squeeze and reserve one tablespoon worth of lemon and orange juices, and reserve the zest.

building strawberry rhubarb bars

In a measuring cup, combine lemon juice, orange juice, agave nectar, vanilla, and arrowroot. Stir with a fork to thoroughly incorporate – This stuff will smell absolutely incredible, by the way…

building strawberry rhubarb bars

Thoroughly rinse, trim and fine dice rhubarb and strawberries. Combine these with the lemon and orange zest in a mixing bowl.

Evenly spread half the fruit blend over the batter in the baking pan.

Evenly sprinkle about half of the lemon juice/agave/vanilla/arrowroot mixture over the fruit.

Evenly crumble the reserved cup of batter over the fruit.

Evenly spread remaining fruit and remaining juice blend over that last layer of batter.

Strawberry rhubarb bars assembled and ready to bake

Bake for 40-50 minutes until the fruit blend is bubbling nicely and exposed crumble is golden brown.

Urban’s Strawberry Rhubarb Bars

Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before cutting bars – This will make sure they firm up nicely and cut well.

Store bars refrigerated, in an airtight container, for up to 5 days.