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.

Chicken ala Dianne

My Friend Dianne Strother Boyd was in need of a ‘low fat, yummy chicken recipe,’ so I put this together. When you’re cutting down on fat and/or going low on salt, what you want is something that has some zing to it, that’ll not only have a nice, bold flavor profile, but will also deliver mouth feel – I give you Chicken ala Dianne.

The combination of flavorful dark chicken meat, leaving the skins and bones on, and a sweet, vinegary marinade will do the trick. It’s an easy dish, doesn’t take a lot of prep time other than marinating, and tastes like you worked harder than you did.

When you lose the richness of fat, or the flavor enhancement salt brings, it’s important to compensate with broad brush strokes. With this dish, you get a really nice balance of major taste bases – Sweet, sour, bitter, with lighter touches of umami and salty. You might want to take a look at our Salt Free Seasoning Blends post, too.

So here ya, go, Dianne – Hope you like it, (and Bill, too!)

Chicken ala Dianne - Low on fat, high on flavor

Chicken ala Dianne

4 bone in, skin on Chicken Thighs (roughly 1 1/2 pounds)

2 Cups fresh Grape Tomatoes (you can rough chop big ones if that’s what you’ve got)

1/4 small sweet Onion

1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar

3/4 Cup Low Sodium Chicken Stock

1 small fresh Lemon

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar (Honey is fine too)

1 5” to 6” sprig fresh Rosemary

2-3 cloves fresh Garlic

2 Tablespoons Nonpareil Capers, drained

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Freshly ground Pepper.

 

Zest lemon and cut in quarters.

Trim, peel, and mince garlic.

Trim, peel and dice 1/4 cup of onion.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine vinegar, oil, stock, juice from 1/4 of the lemon, the lemon zest, garlic, onion, and honey. Whisk to incorporate. 

Add chicken to the mixing bowl and allow to marinate, refrigerated, for 30 minutes, then flip the pieces and marinate for another 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Arrange chicken in a baking pan or casserole dish, and pour marinade over the chicken.

Add the tomatoes to the dish and spread them evenly throughout – Ditto with the capers.

Break the rosemary into two or three pieces and toss that on the chicken.

Season with a few twists of pepper – With capers in there, you really don’t need any more added salt.

Bake on a middle rack until you reach an internal temperature of 160° F, then remove dish from oven and allow a 10 minute rest.

Serve with rice, a green salad, and the remaining lemon slices.

Sauce Grenobloise is a delight!

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

Gratin dauphinois, Grenoble’s signature dish

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

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

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

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

potatoes with garlic, celery leaf, and Korean chile flake

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

Pan seared chicken, finished in the oven

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

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

 

Sauce Grenobloise

1/4 Cup fresh unsalted Butter

1 small fresh Lemon

2 Tablespoons Nonpareil Capers

2 Tablespoons fresh Parsley

1/2 Cup Croutons

If you don’t have croutons handy – 

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

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

Cut bread into roughly 1/2” squares.

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

Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

For the Sauce – 

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

Mince the parsley.

Drain the capers.

Mise en place for sauce grenobloise

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

Melting the butter for sauce grenobloise

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

The butter will likely foam when you add lemon

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

Sauce Grenobloise

Remove sauce from heat.

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

Sauce Grenobloise deployed

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

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

Charro Beans, Here We Come.

Yet another entry in the ever expanding string of dishes I seem to mention frequently, but have yet to actually post a recipe for. This one comes from Doug in Iowa, (Des Moines, in fact). He writes, ‘I’ve enjoyed your bean recipes lately, but when I went looking for charro beans, I couldn’t find anything. Were they maybe named something else?’ No, Doug, they weren’t. And for something I oft tote as a necessary part of a homemade Mexican meal, you’d think they’d be here alright. Anyway, time to fix that one, so charro beans, here we come.

Now, for the record, a Charro is a Mexican cowboy – those guys dressed in gorgeous outfits who participate in the coleadero y charreada, a rodeo that developed from informal inter-ranch skills competitions. While more than one Mexican state claims the origin, it seems likely that Jalisco takes the prize – Charros, (and Charras), originated in the Salamanca province of Spain, and then settled there, back in the colonial days.

That bean dish that shares the moniker also came from the ranch lands. Like chili, charro beans are a stew, meant to be a hearty meal to fuel a cowboy or cowgirl for many hours of hard work. The most traditional bean used is a pinto, which is generally combined with pork, chiles, tomato, onion, and garlic. Charros are delicious, and so they naturally spread with the folks who love it, perhaps most notably to northern Mexico and Texas, and into Tex-Mex cuisine. Nowadays, versions can be found damn near anywhere there’s a decent Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant.

Now, that said, charro beans were and are also meant to use up what you have that needs to be used, and/or, what you really love to combine – There are no hard and fast rules, despite what you may read elsewhere. Like all great signature dishes, there’s a ton of cooks who make them their own way, just as you should, so let’s break things down by primary elements.

Charros are best made with high quality, dry beans

First, the beans – You can and should use whatever you have and love, though they should be a variety that holds up well to low and slow cooking, (which is a lot of ‘em, thankfully.) I’ve made charros with white, black, brown, and red bean varieties, and they were all delicious. I strongly recommend making them with high quality, dry beans like Rancho Gordo, but if you’re in the mood and have a need for speed, they’ll make a can of beans far more than presentable pretty quickly.

If you’re not a meat eater, charros are a great dish, because you sure don’t need any for this to be a hearty and delicious meal. For those that do, it’s usually pork, and I’ve seen everything from bacon to pork shoulder, smoked ham hock, chorizo, and even hot dogs – Remember, it’s what you’ve got that needs using and what you love, and nada else.

Chiles are a must in charro beans

Peppers of some kind are a must, but whether or not they’re hot is up to you. Sweet peppers are fine if that’s your jam, as are nuclear chiles. Most folks probably lean toward jalapeños as the standard, and for good reason – Field stripped, they’re relatively mild and tasty as all get out. Tossed into the mix whole, they have reasonable heat. Go with what you love.

Plum tomatoes are the go to for charro beans

Tomatoes are a must, and plum varieties like a Roma are most common. You can use canned if that’s what you’ve got, but if fresh ‘maters are in season, that’s where you aughta be.

Onions are also a must, and they need to be notable in the mix. That said, the variety is up to you. When fresh sweets like a Walla Walla are in season, that’s where I go. In general, you want fresh stuff – a really strong old onion can poison this dish pretty quickly.

Garlic is a must. Not so much that the dish screams its presence, but enough to give it that low, sweet funky note.

A little salt and fresh ground pepper, and fresh cilantro is the baseline seasoning for charros. There’s lots more you can use if you like – Mexican oregano, lemon thyme, and citrus juice and zest have been long time faves of mine, for good reason.

Now, as for beer, the answer is no, it’s not necessary. That’s a Tex-Mex specific trick that I personally don’t do. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, though – We put beer in chili or stew, and it’ll go just fine in charros. Personally, I go with the liquid the beans cooked in, bean stock, because, well, it’s a bean stew, right? Anything else is up to you – put whatever you like in there that makes it your signature version – To each their own.

As for cooking process, it’s best to go the traditional low and slow method. If you’re in a hurry and you have the goods, very decent charros can be whipped up in the time it takes to get other things ready for tacos, for instance. If what you have is canned beans, adding the required adjuncts, quickly diced, with enough chicken or veggie stock to get the right, soupy consistency, coupled with a 30 minute simmer, will be more than OK.

If you’re using dry beans, they need to be par cooked before you begin the charro cook. This is the stage I cook all my beans to – al dente, so that I can do stuff like charros, barbecue, or baked dishes without the beans turning to mush – That’s how I freeze them for pretty quick future use, too.

A lot of charro recipes tell you to simmer the beans in water, fry and sauté most of the other ingredients, and then assemble, heat through for a bit, and serve. For my taste, you get a far better dish with deeper flavors, if you simmer everything together for at least 30 minutes, and longer if you wish. Finally, you’ll see that I roast most of the constituents in my charros – This creates a notably richer dish.

 

Charro Beans de UrbanMonique

1 Pound par cooked, dry Pinto Beans (or any reasonable substitution)

Bean Stock to cover

Chicken or Veggie Stock to top off

6 strips smoky, Pepper Bacon

2 medium Sweet Onions

4 fresh Roma Tomatoes

2 fat cloves Garlic

2-4 Chiles (We like jalapeño or serrano)

1 small Lemon

6-8 stalks fresh Cilantro

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

Salt and freshly ground Pepper to taste

NOTES:

1. High quality beans like Rancho Gordo really and truly do not require anything added when initially boiled. You certainly can put stuff in there if you like – I often just toss in a couple bay leaves, and that’s plenty. If you want a more definitive base, a thick slice of onion cut in half, a few 1/2” rounds of carrot and celery, and those bay leaves, will do nicely.

2. You do not need to soak high quality beans before boiling them – You really don’t.

3. You will want a ready supply of boiling water to add to the beans as they cook, so either a tea pot, hot pot, or spare pan should be set up with at least a quart of water therein.

4. You can prep everything but beans as they are boiling if you like, or wait until they’re cooked to al dente – Your choice, and it won’t hurt a thing either way.

Pour beans into a colander and rinse thoroughly, inspecting for rocks and other detritus.

Transfer beans to a heavy sauce pan over high heat and add enough water to cover by at least 2” – and 3” is better.

When the beans begin to boil, set a timer for 10 minutes.

When your 10 minutes are up, reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Hang out long enough to see where things settle, and adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer.

Keep an eye on things as the beans cook, topping off the water to maintain at least 2” over the beans – This will change as they absorb water, so don’t leave them for long.

At 30 minutes into the simmer, give the beans a good stir and check one or two for doneness – They will not be close in all likelihood, but you’d much rather catch things on the upslope then down, eh?

When your beans are al dente – Still not soft enough to be ready to eat, but not far off, remove the pan from heat while you prep everything else.

Peal and trim onion and garlic, stem chiles, (and field strip the chiles, if you’re cutting the heat factor down – aka remove the white membrane – That’s where the heat lives).

Cut onion, tomatoes, and chiles in half.

Cut lemon in half, return half to fridge. Zest the working half.

Arrange onion, chiles, tomatoes, garlic, lemon, and bacon on a baking sheet, on an upper middle oven rack.

Set oven on broil and roast until bacon looks done and the veggies begin to blister and blacken.

Turn the veggies and the bacon once and continue roasting for another 3-5 minutes, until the bacon looks done on the turned side.

Remove from oven and allow everything to cool enough to handle.

Dice all the roasted veggies, and mince the garlic.

Rough chop cilantro.

Turn the heat under the beans back up to medium high.

Add roasted veggies and stir to incorporate.

Add chicken or veggies stock to cover beans by at least 2”.

Allow the beans to come back to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer.

Add oregano, and stir to incorporate.

Simmer until the beans attain a thick soup consistency, around 30 minutes, and longer if you wish.

just prior to service, add the cilantro and the lemon zest, and squeeze in the juice from the roasted lemon half – stir to incorporate.

Charro beans in all their glory

Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.

Buen provecho!

Sambal – Indonesian Rocket Fuel

There’s a reasonable argument, I believe, that the chile, (or chillie, chili, or pepper), rivals the tomato for the most widespread crop to have originated in South America and Mexico. Numbers-wise, worldwide tomato cultivation dwarfs that of chiles at something like 3:1, but try to tell me that chiles aren’t far more integral to the soul of more cuisines around the globe, and I’ll beg to differ. Tomatoes are there, yes, but chiles are the heartbeat. If you have even a scrap of Chile Head predilection, discovering and playing with the almost endless permutations of spicy condiments is a constant delight – A little known bastion of such stuff, (at least here in the US), is called sambal – also know as Indonesian rocket fuel.

Sambal is truly ubiquitous in Indonesian cuisine, (the word is borrowed from the Malayan sambel, meaning condiment.) There are over 40 widely popular varieties, and far more personal riffs on those – There are tens of thousands of islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and damn near every one has their own sambal. Chiles are the heartbeat of sambal, mixed with everything from shallots and scallions to shrimp paste and tamarind. The consistency ranges from thin to ketchup-like sauces, and relishes to pastes. Heat profiles go from delicate to fire breathing, and everything in between. There’s a delightful range of all the basic five flavor notes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Sambals are woven into favorite dishes from fresh veggies to fish, chicken, beef, and various soups and stews.

Chiles have a long history in Indonesia, likely introduced by the Portuguese as early as the 16th century. Indonesians were already familiar with some sense of heat zing, through black pepper and ginger. Chiles, with their admirably higher voltage, were a big hit right off the boat.

Traditionally prepared with a stone mortar and pestle, (that look identical to a molcajete and tejolote, interestingly enough), sambal can be either raw or cooked. That choice is often made depending on whether a small batch is being made for immediate consumption, or a larger one for longer term use. Locals tend to insist on freshness, of course, so what you’ll get in a restaurant is likely to have been made either that day, or even right before your meal is served. As with any other wildly popular condiment, there are a bunch of commercially prepared options out there – If Indonesian home cooks sniff at that stuff and swear their home made is way better, they’re undoubtedly right – but they may well have a jar or two in their pantry as well.

Naturally, Indonesia boasts a raft of local chile varieties, including variants of the habanero (adyuma), birds eye (cabe rawit), cayenne (cabi merah), New Mexican (Lombok), naga jolokia (cabe taliwang), and many more. As their parent varieties suggest, these run the gamut from mild to nuclear. You can use the common substitutes for any of these. Birds eye chiles can be hard to find fresh, but are readily available dried, and reconstitute quickly.

Since there’s no truly logical way to present a few options to y’all, we’ll just go with the ones we like most. As always, you’re strongly encouraged to dig into the varieties and their accompanying dishes and branch out on your own. Indonesians eat sambal with almost anything, so it’s a guarantee there’s a world of great pairings out there for you.

NOTES: 

1. The first recipe, for Sambal Kecap Pedas, requires the signature sweet soy sauce of Indonesia, Kecap Manis (kuh-CHOP MAH-nees). That stuff is, all by itself, a widely popular dipping sauce and adjunct for many things, and it’s also super easy to make at home, so I provided a recipe for that as well.

2. As with everything, you should have some flexibility when the spirit moves you. Don’t worry if you don’t have ‘the right chile’ on hand – Use what you have and like for any or all of these recipes.

 

Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

2 Cups Dark Soy Sauce

1 Cup Palm Sugar (or Brown Sugar)

1/4 Cup Water

1/2” chunk fresh Ginger Root

1/4 Star Anise Pod

1/2” Cinnamon Stick (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)

1 fat clove fresh Garlic 

Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, combine sugar and soy sauce. Whisk constantly to combine and dissolve sugar.

Once soy and sugar are fully combined, add water, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and star anise.

Turn heat up to medium high, whisking steadily and bring the mixture to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer gently until sugar is fully dissolved and water has been completely absorbed, about 10 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and allow to cool.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer into a clean glass jar with an air tight lid.

Store refrigerated for up to 10 days.

Sambal Kecap Pedis - Fiery and sweet

Sambal Kecap Pedas – Spicy Sweet

This is a super simple, quick sambal, and it’s delicious

Note – It does require that Kecap Manis sweet soy sauce.

Good birds eye chiles are truly hot little dudes. The low end of the spectrum I listed has a notable, but not debilitating mouth burn, while the high end will cure your sinus issues – adjust accordingly.

2-3 fresh Scallions (shallots are more traditional, so feel free to use them if you prefer)

24-48 Birds Eye Chiles

4-6 Tablespoons Kecap Manis

If you’re using dried birds eye chiles, set them in a non-reactive dish and cover them with very hot water. Allow them to steep until soft and fully reconstituted, about 15 minutes.

Reconstituted Birds Eye chiles - Small But mighty

Peel and end trim scallions, then slice very thinly, (if you have a mandoline, (the kitchen toy, not the instrument), this is the time to get that in play.)

Remove chiles from soaking water and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel, (and now do NOT pick your nose or rub your eyes…), and mince chiles.

Combine shallot and chiles in a non-reactive bowl and add 4 tablespoons of kecap manis – mix with a spoon, and add more sauce if you like things a bit thinner – what you want is a sort of chunky salsa consistency.

Allow the sambal to blend for at least 15-30 minutes before serving.

Commercial Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek 

This is the one you’re most likely to have seen in a jar at a store near you. It’s kinda like sriracha, but much more complex.

1/2 Pound Red Chiles, (Thai, or red jalapeño, New Mexican, cayenne, or serranos will do just fine)

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 stalk Lemongrass

1” fresh Ginger Root

1 small Lime

1/4 Cup Cider Vinegar 

1 teaspoon Palm Sugar, (or brown)

Pinch Salt

Stem chiles and rough chop.

Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.

Peel, trim and rough chop just the white part of the lemon grass.

Zest lime and set fruit aside.

Add chiles, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass to a blender vessel and pulse to incorporate.

Add about half the vinegar and pulse, then repeat with the rest of the vinegar and pulse until you have a homogenous mix.

Add the puréed mix to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.

When the mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to a simmer.

Add sugar, lime zest, a quarter of a lime worth of juice, and a pinch of salt, whisk to incorporate.

Cook until the sugar is fully dissolved, about 2-3 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to a clean glass jar with an airtight lid.

Will last up to a week refrigerated, (but it probably won’t last that long, it’s delicious!)

Roasted Sambal Lado Mudo

Roasted Sambal Lado Mudo

This is my swing on what is arguably the most famous Padang sambal, and it’s a winner – It’s traditionally made with green tomatoes, but I love it with tomatillos – Call it fusion if you like…

You can see from my images that I used what I had for chiles, and let me assure you, it was spectacular.

10-12 long green Chiles (New Mexican or Hatch are perfect – Pick your preferred heat level.)

3-4 large Shallots (You can use scallions, white, or yellow onion too, if that’s what you’ve got)

4-5 large Tomatillos

1 small Lime

1 fat clove fresh Garlic

8-12 drops Red Boat Fish Sauce

Pinch of Salt

Pinch of Sugar

Stem chiles, peel and trim shallots and garlic, peel and stem tomatillos.

Cut all that stuff in half, as well as the lime.

Arrange chiles, shallots, garlic, tomatillos and lime on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Set oven on Broil, and position a rack in the upper middle zone.

Roast the veggies until the skins are blistered, turning once for even cooking, about 7-10 minutes total.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes.

Toss everything into a blender vessel and squeeze the juice from the half lime in as well.

Pulse until you have a nice, chunky consistency. 

Add 3 drops of fish sauce, pinch of salt and sugar and pulse to incorporate.

Taste and adjust fish sauce, salt, sugar and lime as desired.

Transfer to a clean glass jar with an air tight lid. Will store refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Sambal Lado Mudo - Green heat

Asinan – Sweet And Sour Cucumber Salad

Goes great with a Indonesian inspired meal.

For the Salad

1 large, fresh Cucumber

1 small sweet Onion

1 Chile (jalapeño or Serrano goes well if you like heat)

5-6 stalks Cilantro

For the Dressing

4 Tablespoons Lime Juice

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger

1/2 teaspoon Granulated Garlic

1/2 teaspoon Hot Chile Oil

Rinse, peel and slice cucumber, half the onion, and the chile into thin rounds, (again, if you’ve got a mandoline, get it in play).

Fold the cilantro stocks over a few times, bundle that tightly, and slice through the bundle to get a nice fine cut.

Transfer cuke, onion, chile, and cilantro into a serving bowl and toss to combine.

Mix all dressing ingredients in a cruet or small jar and shake to incorporate.

Dress the salad lightly and allow it to sit and marinate, refrigerated for at least 30 minutes before serving.