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.

Spring Cleaning Your Freezer

For 25 points, identify the following protein:

Didn’t think so…

Spring is the perfect time for deep cleaning. Shaking off the dust and cold and mold of winter, letting fresh air in – We do it to our homes, (hopefully), and we need to do it to our freezers as well.

Whether you’ve got just a small one attached to your fridge, or a stand alone unit, it’s time to thoroughly clean that beast, inventory what’s there with a critical eye, toss what needs to be tossed and cook what must be cooked before that too goes to the great beyond.

This line of reasoning naturally brooks the question, “Can food go bad in the freezer?” The answer to which is a definite ‘Yup!’

Keep in mind that freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast, mold, etc –  it just pretty much keeps them from multiplying. If there was something funky present prior to freezing, it could indeed reappear when thawed. Additionally, freezing does not do any favors for food quality or taste – over time, great stuff will become good and good stuff becomes that image up yonder.

Before we abandon the ‘how long’ question for the stuff in the freezer, let’s review – When does quality starts to degrade? That depends on what it is, and how well it was packaged, frankly. For answers to this and other freezer questions, hop on over to the USDA’s Food Safety site and read for yourself. You’ll also find the National Center For Home Food Preservation a wealth of good info, so scope that out too.

In general terms, anything that looks like the image above – an obvious victims of freezer burn due to poor packaging, needs to go. If flesh looks substantially different than it usually does when thawed, (Darker, off color, dried out, etc), then you should give it the heave ho. Trust me when I say if it looks funky, it’ll taste funky, and it could well be dangerous.

When you package for freezing, head back to the NCHFP site and read up on best practices.

The time to clear out your freezer is also the time to clean the bugger; this should be done at least annually, (and twice is better yet.) The best time do the deed is when stocks are low – AKA, the end of winter.

Pull everything out and put it into a fridge or cooler(s) while you clean.

Turn off, unplug, and thoroughly defrost your unit.

Once it’s to room temp, clean the insides thoroughly; I like Clorox cleanup for the job, but dish soap and water works fine too. Remove and clean all the shelves, racks, drawers, etc as well.

Do a rinse wipe with a solution of 2 Tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, then wipe that down with a clean, dry cloth.

Don’t forget the unseen parts! Pull the freezer from it’s normal locale and clean underneath. Inspect the back and clean that as well, (And the top), and dust the coils if your unit has exposed ones.

If you don’t already have one, buy a decent but cheap inside-the-unit thermometer and place in an easy to see spot. Our commercial units have thermometers on them, usually digital, but we don’t trust those; every unit, reach in or walk in, has a stand alone thermometer inside it.

Optimal freezer temp for food storage is -15ºF to -5ºF; it should never go above 15ºF for any extended length of time.

Fire ‘er back up, let it get fully cold and then put your bounty back in. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for the same time next year.

OK, that about covers it – now go have a celebratory beer or two, you deserve it.

Huaraches – Fantastic Mexican Street Food!

When you read that we’re making huaraches, you’d be forgiven if you thought we’re talking footwear – This version, however, is fantastic Mexican street food, so trust me when I tell you they taste a bunch better than shoe leather – Huaraches are drop dead delicious and really fun to make.

Loaded Huaraches - Street food bliss!

Huaraches are a thin corn cake stuffed with refried beans and topped with whatever you like. They reportedly originated at a Mexico City street stand in the 1930s, invented by Mrs. Carmen Gomez Medina. Legend has it that she initially offered tlacoyos, which are in essence identical to huaraches, just shaped more like an American football than a Mexican sandal. Either way, it’s hard to miss with that equation, right?

Huaraches are still plenty popular in Mexico City, as well as the rest of Mexico. For that matter, in any US city with a decent Mexican-American population, somebody is offering them from a cart, truck, or hole in the wall eatery – Just as it should be. The name probably derives from the Nahuatl word for sandals – kwarachi.

This is another perfect dish for dealing with leftovers. Anything from pico de gallo to potatoes, fresh or pickled veggies, leftover proteins, or just a dusting of good cheese will do the trick. If you’re planning for them, you can go wild and chase down fresh choriso, queso añejo, and nopales to add to the mix. Huaraches are plenty hardy as a main dish, or can be cut up for appetizers, as you please.

The originals were stuffed with black beans, but any bean you have on hand will most definitely do. If you’re dealing with really high quality legumes, (like Rancho Gordo), nothing other than mashed or puréed beans and a pinch of salt is required to make them special. If inspiration strikes when what you have readily available are canned beans, that’s OK – As long as you give them some love, they’ll work just fine. I’ve included a recipe for doctored beans that will do the trick.

Forming huaraches is easiest with a tortilla press. If you love tacos and eat them a lot, you deserve fresh corn tortillas and a decent press – a good one can be had for under twenty bucks. They’re fun to form by hand too, so fear not if a rolling pin is what you’ve got to work with.

I’ve included a recipe for our killer salsa verde, which goes particularly well with huaraches. Again, this is a dish that’s perfect for leftovers, so just pull out what you’ve got, wing it, and enjoy.

Beans for huaraches

Doctored Beans

1 Cup cooked Beans

3/4 Cup Chicken or Veggie Stock

1 clove fresh minced Garlic

2 Tablespoons fine diced fresh Onion

1-2 Tablespoons fine diced Jalapeño Chile

2-3 sprigs minced Cilantro

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

Pinch Salt

if using canned beans, pour them into a single mesh strainer and rinse thoroughly under cold running water until all traces of the liquid they’re packed in are gone.

In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, heat the oil through. 

Add the onion and chile. Sauté, stirring, until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2 minutes.

Add garlic and sauté until the raw smell dissipates.

Add beans, chicken stock, cilantro, and salt, stir to incorporate.

When the beans start to boil, reduce temp to a bare simmer. 

Simmer beans for about 15 – 20 minutes, until the liquid is almost gone – then remove from heat.

Beans can be mashed with a fork or spud masher and left rustic. If you prefer things really smooth, they can be puréed in a blender. If you go the latter road, add a little more stock as needed to help everything blend properly. You want them thick but spreadable, so whichever version you make, use more stock to thin things out if needed when you’re ready to fill huaraches.

Mashed beans, perfect for huaraches

Roasted Salsa Verde

1 1/2 Pounds fresh, ripe Tomatillos, (about 8-10 good sized ones).

1/2 large yellow Onion

1-3 fresh Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles

1-2 large cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 Cup fresh Cilantro

1 small fresh Lime 

Pinch Salt

NOTE: ‘Field stripping’ chiles means to stem, seed, and devein. If you really like heat, then you can disregard the deseed and devein steps.

Pull off the papery husks from the tomatillos and rinse them thoroughly. Cut them in half.

If you want milder chiles, cut them in half and field strip them – if not, just stem and cut in half.

Cut onion and half and peel, (the other half can go in the fridge).

Peel and trim garlic, but leave cloves whole.

Cut lime in half, put half back in the fridge.

fresh veggies day to roast for salsa verde

Place all that onto a baking sheet, cut side down under a broiler, with the rack set on an upper, (but not the highest), slot.

Let everything broil until the skins of the tomatillos, tomato, and chiles have blistered, then flip them all and let things work on the back side – Total cooking time will be about 12-15 minutes.

When the tomatillos are bubbling nicely, and the insides are soft when pressed with a fork, pull the baking sheet out and let everything cool for a few minutes.

roasted veggies ready to make salsa verde

Rough chop cilantro.

Toss tomatillos, tomato, chiles, onion, garlic, cilantro, and a pinch of salt into a blender vessel. Squeeze the lime juice in with everything else.

Purée in the blender until you have a nice, even consistency. Taste and adjust lime and salt as desired.

Fresh roasted Salsa Verde

Pour into a non-reactive jar or bowl, cover and chill until ready for use. This recipe makes about a quart of finished salsa. Tightly covered in clean glass, it’ll last for about a week refrigerated.

 

Huaraches de UrbanMonique

2 Cups Masa Harina

1 Cup mashed or puréed Beans

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1 Cup + 2-3 Tablespoons Hot Water

1 teaspoon Salt

In a large mixing bowl, add masa, salt, and 1 cup of hot water. Knead by hand until the dough is fully incorporated – It should not stick to your hands, but should feel moist – It will feel almost like play dough when it’s right – Add that extra tablespoon or two of water as needed to get there. When all is well, cover with a clean damp cloth and let the dough rest for 15 minutes – This allows the masa to fully absorb the water, and keeps your final product from drying out.

Always cover resting masa!

Set up your mis en place – Masa, press or rolling pin, beans, and skillet.

Check your dough – If it feels like it’s dried out some, (which it probably will), add a tablespoon of water and knead that in – You want a feel like a soft cookie dough, but not sticky.

Pinch off some dough and roll it into a ball about the size of a large egg.

masa balls ready to press

Put a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add 1/4 cup avocado oil, and allow it to heat through, (if it starts to smoke, turn it down a bit).

Preheat your oven to warm, and set a rack in the middle position with a baking sheet lined with parchment.

If you’re using a press, cut waxed paper or parchment to more or less fit the plates – If you’re rolling, just a couple chunks about 8” long will do nicely, (if you still use plastic in your kitchen, what you really want it the sides of a gallon ziplock bag cut into big circles – That’s the most forgiving and easy release option.)

Alright, here comes the fun part. Grab a dough ball and squeeze it into an egg shape. 

Making fresh huaraches!

Use your thumb to press deeply into the middle of the egg, forming an egg-long, wide trough – The egg lengthens a bit as you do this, so it kinda looks like a little canoe now.

Making fresh huaraches!

Add about a tablespoon of beans to fill the trough, then gently pinch up the edges of the canoe to surround and seal in the beans. You’ll get a bit of filling slopping over, so just wipe that off and proceed. 

Making fresh huaraches!

Once it’s sealed, use your palms to roll that canoe into a log about 5” long.

Making fresh huaraches!

Making fresh huaraches!

Now you’re ready to either press or roll – These will end up as oblongs, vaguely sandal shaped beasties about 6” long and 4” or so wide – It’s not an exact thing, so don’t fret, (and as you can see, mine weren’t picture perfect!) Just have fun with it, and know that the more you do, the better you get – They’re going to be delicious, and that’s what counts.

Making fresh huaraches!

Making fresh huaraches!

You want to fry these as soon as they’re pressed or rolled. Handle them carefully. Peel the top parchment off, and flip the thing so the huarache is on your hand. Now carefully peel the other parchment off and slip the goods into the hot pan.

Fry for about a minute or so, then flip it and do the other side for a minute and a half to two minutes – You want a nice golden brown to that second side.

Your first huaraches probably won’t be pretty, but they will be delicious!

Transfer the cooked huarache to the baking sheet in the oven and move on to the next one.

Huarache toppings - Whatever you got!

Toppings are whatever you desire and have on hand. A quick pickled mix of radish and sweet onion, fresh chiles, onion, or cilantro. Thinly sliced cabbage, crumbly Mexican cheese, fresh tomato, avocado, more lime wedges, the salsa verde of course. Leftover chicken, beef, or pork is dandy, and again, fresh chorizo is a delight.

Fresh chorizo is never a bad idea

These go great with cold Mexican beer, great friends, and lively conversation!

Never Toss Those Parmesan Rinds!

Let’s talk about Parmigiano-Reggiano, or more specifically, the rinds therefrom. Why? Because Monica saves them, and frankly, while you might think she’s being extra OCD, you’d be wrong. Right after she pointed out that I get most of my good ideas from her, (OK, that might be true…), she noted, ‘we pay twenty something bucks a pound for that stuff – I’m not throwing that away!’ She’s right, folks – Never toss those Parmesan rinds.

Parmigiano-Reggiano, the King of Cheese

We should probably start with a bit of definition, since there are variables out there. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a cows milk Italian hard cheese. If it’s to be called P-R, then it has to have aged for at least 2 years before you got it, (and sometimes longer – Stravecchio is 3 years old, and stravecchiones is a 4 year old). Real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano comes only from Parma, Bologna, Mantua, or Modena, and the words ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano’ are clearly stenciled onto the outer rind of each wheel of cheese. That P-R name, as well as the anglicized version, ‘Parmesan,’ are protected turf across Europe, per Italian DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) laws. 

Parmigiano-Reggiano aging

Here in the U.S., Parmesan does not enjoy that protected status, so it can come from just about anywhere. That’s not to say that all non Parmigiano-Reggiano is crap – There are some American makers creating very good cheese indeed. One caveat though – Don’t ever buy anything labeled Parmesan that’s already been grated – That’s like buying your coffee pre-ground, and it’s a major no no – it’s virtually guaranteed that the expected depth and intensity of flavor will not be there.

Real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds - Never toss ‘em!

Since we’re talking cooking with rinds here, no genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that I’m aware of has a waxed rind, but some other Parmesan varieties do, so caveat coquus, (cooks beware, I think…) It’s easy to tell if a rind is waxed or not, just scrape it with a paring knife if you can’t tell by sight alone.

As for those genuine rinds, I assure you, they’re 100% edible. If you’ve got a really fine grater plate, or a micro plane, you have all you need to enjoy them. Fact is, all the stuff you dig about Parmigiano-Reggiano is intensified in that crustal zone – The umami, the intensely savory flavor notes, the whole shebang – so wasting that really is criminal, let alone costly.

The simplest, and some of the most deliciously effective uses for P-R rinds is to toss a couple or three into any low and slow dish you think might benefit. Everything from all day bolognese and minestrone, to stew or house made stock will benefit greatly. The rinds will soften and release that legendary flavor profile slowly but surely. You can toss the rinds after you’ve used them in this manner, or give them a nosh, as you please, (they’re still edible of course, but they do get pretty played out after hours of work like that). Oh, and your kitchen will smell fabulous when you do this, too.

A rind or two in a pot of rice, wild rice, or beans will work its magic there as well. Again, it’ll bring a notable boost in umami, a distinct mouth feel, as well as that amazing flavor palette, and it’s lovely.

Parmigiano-Reggiano rind oil - Heady stuff!

How about throwing a few rinds cut skinny into a jar and topping them with olive or avocado oil? You’ll get a nice, subtle taste that’s great when mixed with balsamic vinegar for a bread dip, or as a constituent of a fresh vinaigrette.

Parm-Reg rind puffs - Seriously tasty

If you don’t mind microwaves, there’s a great trick from the folks at P-R – Parmigiano-Reggiano crispy cheese rind puffs. They’re a gas to make and they are seriously heavenly little snacks. Chomp on them straight, or cut them into cubes to garnish soup, stew, or a salad.

prepping Parm-Reg rind puffs

Cut a rind or three into strips about 3/4” wide, 1/8” thick and around 3” long.

Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the base or carousel of your microwave.

prepping Parm-Reg rind puffs

Place three pieces of rind on the parchment, and set your micro for 45 seconds on high power, (this if for a oven around 1,100 watts, so your time may vary depending on what kinda power you got).

The rinds will go through a very slick cooking process, puffing up quickly and substantially. Be careful with this stuff – Molten cheese is half velcro, half lava and it will do your skin serious harm!

Parm-Reg rind puffs - Seriously tasty

Carefully pull the parchment with rinds onboard out of the oven, then slide the rinds onto a cooling rack. 

Let them sit for a few minutes to cool out of the molten phase and firm up some.

You’re now in business – You can cut them into croutons, leave them as strips, and go wild – Be forewarned, they’re seriously addictive.

Don’t like microwaves? You can achieve pretty much the same end, albeit without the cool puffing up, by toasting rinds over a gas flame or in your broiler – They’re not quite as sexy as the puffs, but they’re every bit as delicious.

Toasted Parmesan rinds make great snacks, or croutons

If you have a gas stove, cut a hunk of rind to about 1/2” thick, and maybe 3/4” wide and a couple inches long. Spear it with a fork on the cheesy side, and gently toast it over a flame, (over, not in), until it’s nice and golden brown. 

Let them cool, then you can chow down, or cut them into croutons, etc.

If you use a broiler, place rinds cheesy side down on metal foil and cook until golden brown.

So there you go, courtesy of M, you now have a bunch of cool and delicious options for those rinds, and you’ve given your kids something new to shake their heads at when they’re rooting around in the fridge.

It’s Time to Riff on Gazpacho

Wait – is this yet another post that stems from somebody asking, ‘have you covered this,’ to which I answer, ‘Definitely,’ only to find that the true answer is, ‘sort of, and very obliquely?’ Yes, yes it is – Therefore, it’s time to riff on Gazpacho.

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

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

Gazpacho Andaluz - The one you’re probably thinking of

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

Gazpacho Verde - All about New World flavors

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

Some Gazpacho variants are more like Pico de Gallo than soup

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

Gazpacho Blanco - Ancient and sublime

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

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

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

4-5 ripe Tomatoes.

1 Cucumber.

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

1-3 cloves fresh Garlic.

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

1/3 cup extra virgin Olive Oil.

2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar.

1 Cup Vegetable Stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gazpacho Verde

4 large Tomatillos

4 Green Onions (Scallions)

1 Green Bell Pepper

1 English Hothouse Cucumber

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

2 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Cup Greek Yogurt

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/4 Cup Veggie Stock

1/4 Cup Cider Vinegar

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

1 fresh Lime

Fine ground Kosher Salt 

Freshly ground Pepper

Ground Piment d’Espelette chile 

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

Husk, stem, and quarter tomatillos.

Stem, seed and rough chop pepper and chiles.

smash, peel, trim, and mince garlic.

Trim and rough chop green onions.

Slice cuke in half, deseed, then rough chop.

Zest and juice lime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gazpacho Blanco

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

1 Cup cold Water

1/4 Cup extra Virgin Olive Oil

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

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

1 clove fresh Garlic

1-2 teaspoons Sherry Vinegar

Fine ground kosher salt

Seedless Green Grapes to garnish

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

Pour almonds into a single mesh strainer.

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

Peel, trim, smash and mince garlic.

Peel, core, and chop apple.

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

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

Pile the mix until thoroughly blended and smooth.

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

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

Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

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

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