Giardiniera – The King of Pickled Veggies

This year’s garden has been hit and miss. Some things have done nicely, others not, even with staggered plantings. That struck home when we had a look at the cucumbers and realized we wouldn’t get enough to make a winters worth of pickles and relish – That’s when inspiration struck – Why not go for a big batch of Giardiniera, the King of pickled veggies, instead?

Giardiniera, (Jar-dhi-nare-uh), is a delightful pickled vegetable mix, either done up as bite sized pieces or a relish. Redolent of fresh veggies and good olive oil, wrapped around lip smacking brininess that rivals a great cornichon – This is something we all need to be making at home.

Pickling foods to preserve them hardens back thousands of years and crosses numerous boundaries – almost every society does and has employed it. Everything from veggies, to meat, fish, fruit, nuts, and even eggs can end up in the pickle jar, much to our advantage. Pickling not only helps preserve things through the dark months, it adds a vital zip to what can otherwise be a rather bland time of year.

Giardiniera hails from Italy, and means literally, ‘from the garden, (also called sottacetto, or ‘under vinegar.’) While variants come from all over the boot, the versions we’re most familiar with has southern roots, down where the mild Mediterranean climate fosters a wide variety of veggies, the best olive oil, and great sea salt. That’s where those colorful jars filled with cauliflower, carrot, olives, onions, peppers, and chiles hailed from.

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You’ll likely find jars of the bite sized version of giardiniera in your local grocery, with the fancy olives and other pickled goodies. While some of the commercial stuff is pretty good, none of it can match what you can make at home, and to top things off, it’s remarkably easy to do, (And frankly, the relish version of giardiniera is much more versatile, and rarely found in stores).

Seasoned with fresh herbs, maybe even touched with a little hot chile flake, giardiniera is fabulous on sandwiches, (including burgers and dogs), pizza, salads, and as a table condiment with more dishes than you can shake a stick at. Now is the time to be doing up a few batches of your own – it’s fairly traditional for giardiniera to be made in the fall, as a catch all for all those late season veggies we don’t want to lose to the first frost.

The American home of giardiniera is Chicago, where that famous Italian beef sandwich hails from. Slow roasted beef, cooked over its own jus, sliced thin and slapped onto a nice, dense roll, ladled with a generous spoon of giardiniera, a little jus, and eaten in the classic sloppy sandwich hunch – a little slice of heaven.

Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera
Italian Beef Sandwich, fueled by Giardiniera

Making giardiniera is a real treat. Your first and foremost issue, naturally, is what to put into the mix. The blend I outlined earlier is generally recognized as the classic base mix, but pretty much anything goes, (I should note that peppers and chiles were not in the original Italian versions of the dish, as they didn’t show up in European cultivation until the 1700s.) firm veggies, like carrots, celeriac root, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus do well. Peppers and chiles will do well too, though really soft stuff like tomatoes tend to break down quickly.

Making giardiniera couldn’t be easier. While some recipes call for cooking or fermenting, (both processes are perfectly fine), the simplest version is, for my mind, best – Just brine your veggie mix for a day or two, until you reach the degrees of zip and bite that you like, and that’s it. You’ll find recipes that call for the mix to be stored in brine, oil, vinegar, and a simple vinaigrette – My money is in the latter option – that will provide a nice stable medium, and a great taste as well.

There are typically mild and spicy (AKA Hot) versions, and extensive regional variety, like the Chicago style that includes sport peppers and an accompanying degree of heat. Down south, the version that goes with a muffuletta sandwich is mild and heavier on the olives. Those are great, and worth your time to build, but really, look upon giardiniera as a launching pad for creativity – You really can’t go wrong if it’s made with stuff you love – For instance, I didn’t have celery when I made up the relish version, but I did have fresh celeriac root, and it turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

You can use any oil and vinegar you like for the base vinaigrette. Seasoning can be as easy as good salt, olive oil, and vinegar. When you feel like adding additional spices, be conservative in both number and ratio – The rule of three is a good thing here.

Unless you process your giardiniera in a hot water bath, keep in mind that this is basically a fridge pickle. If made carefully, and packed into sterilized glass jars, it will last a month or two refrigerated. Just keep in mind that they’re not shelf stable unless you go through the canning process. Accordingly, what we offer below are small batches that will make a couple of quart jars of finished product. There are cooked and fermented versions out there, and we’ll leave those for you to explore.

Giardiniera Relish

A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge
A quart of fresh Giardiniera will last a couple months in your fridge

For the base mix

1 Green Bell Pepper
1 Red Pepper
1 small Sweet Onion
2-4 Jalapeño Chiles
1 medium Carrot
1 Stalk Celery
1/2 Cup Cauliflower florets
1/4 Cup Pickling Salt

For the final mix

1 Cup White Vinegar
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
6-8 large Green Olives
1 Clove Garlic
1/2 teaspoon Chile Flake
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rinse all produce thoroughly.

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

Cut all veggies for the base mix into a uniform fine dice, about 1/4″ pieces. It’s not important to be exact, just get everything about the same size and you’ll be fine.

Transfer the mix to a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Cover the mix with fresh, cold water with an inch or so to spare.

Add the pickling salt and mix with a slotted spoon until the salt is thoroughly dissolved.

Cover with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, take a spoon of the mix out, gently rinse it under cold water for a minute or so.

Test the degree of pickle and softness of the veggies. If you like what you’ve got, move on – If not, give it another day.
When you’re ready to prep the final mix –

Remove the base mix from the fridge and transfer to a single mesh strainer. Run cold water over and through the mix, using your hand to make sure that the salt solution is rinsed off.

fine dice the olives, peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Add all ingredients to a glass or stainless mixing bowl and stir with a slotted spoon to thoroughly incorporate.

Sanitize two quart mason jars either by boiling the jars, rings, and lids for 3-5 minutes in clean, fresh water, or running them through a cycle in your dishwasher.

Transfer the mix to the jars, and seal. Refrigerate for two days prior to use.

Giardiniera, bite size
Giardiniera, bite size

For the bite sized version, cut everything into roughly 1″ pieces, )or larger, depending on jar size and predilection), and process as per above. A bay leaf or two is a nice addition.

Cooking at the Gathering

So, a couple weeks ago, I didn’t post, because, as luck and joy would have it, I was 1600 miles from home, at my other home for a few precious days. Formally known as The Luthier Community Gathering, this is an annual event held in the north woods of Minnesota. Hosted by Grant Goltz and Christy Hohman at their incredibly eclectic and homey spread, this is several days of companionship, renewed and new friendships, music, incredible house made beer and ale, and of course, food.   

Over the years, I’ve become the official Chef de Gathering, and it is a joy of joys to do. Over the three days of the main event, we feed somewhere around 30 to 40 folks for dinner, and maybe 12 to 20 for breakfasts and lunches. While some folks bring a little of this and a little of that, Chris and I provide the mainstays, (and usually Monica, who couldn’t make the trip this year due to a new job). And rank has its privilege – I get my own incredibly cozy Chef apartment, and an incredible kitchen to work from.


 For such a big crowd, the process is incredibly easy. At some point, we’ll touch base and decide on theme, main ingredients, etc – it rarely takes more than a couple minutes. I say, “Hey Chris, what are we gonna build?” She fires off some options, inspiration takes hold, and off we go. 

 The real joy comes not only from feeding good friends in a great kitchen, but in the gathering of ingredients. Grant and Christy run a Community Supported Agriculture, (CSA), operation on their spread, so the variety and scope of produce is truly stunning, as you can see.  So, picking ingredients means just that; heading out on the trail with basket in hand, and coming back with the bounty. 

  
  
 This year marked the first truly amazing mushroom harvest, from logs inoculated and set up last season – Shiitakes, an almost embarrassing wealth of gorgeous, just picked beauties – I put them in everything I could think of, (and I did say ‘almost’).

  

  
Our mutual friends, John and Lissa Sumption, have a working CSA close by, (King’s Gardens), so literally anything we don’t have right on hand can be had with a phone call. During my visit, Mark, the very talented local butcher, stopped by and dropped off some goodies, for which he took produce in barter. The results speak for themselves.  

  
 Our recent piece on apples contains several of the recipes we did this year. Here’s the recipe for smoked Guacamole – It’s become a must-do for the event ever since we debuted it seven or eight years ago.


The Annual Gathering is open to any and all who love music, good friends, and good food. Here’s a video and a song that pretty well sums up the vibe. It’s held in August every year. This year, a dear friend from my wildfire fighting days, Nancy Swenson, made the trip out – First time we’d seen each other in thirty four years!

Tapenade

This morning, I woke up Jonesing for Tapenade. If, gods forbid, you’re unfamiliar, it’s a classic Provençal dish made with olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil, chopped finely or blended together into a paste.

It’s not only incredibly delicious, it’s silly easy to make and it stores well; this naturally invites one to make a couple varieties and keep them handy when you need a nosh. Just varying the olive in question is a tasty adventure in and of itself.

The now closed Orchard Street Brewery here in Bellingham used to offer a creamy variation with Kalamata olives that I was crazy about, so I’ve recreated that version here; it’s a bit milder on the garlic and anchovy front, as well as having the creamy aspect, so it may well be more palatable to those who think they’ll hate tapenade… I’ve included what I’d comfortably call a classic style for y’all to try as well.

Classic Tapenade

1 Cup pitted black Provençal Olives, pitted
1/4 Cup extra virgin Olive Oil
2 canned, oil-packed Anchovy Fillets
2-3 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Capers
Juice of 1/2 fresh Lemon
1/4 teaspoon fresh Lemon Zest
1/2 teaspoon dried Thyme
A couple twists of fresh ground black Pepper

Creamy Kalamata Tapenade

1 Cup Crème Fraîche
1/2 Cup Kalamata Olives, pitted
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 clove Garlic
Juice 1/2 Lemon
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Zest
1/2 teaspoon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Anchovy Paste
Couple twists of fresh ground Pepper
Note: you may sub Crèma or sour cream for the Crème Fraîche

For either variation, throw everybody into your robot coup, (AKA, the Quisinart, AKA a food processor). Pulse sparingly until all the ingredients are evenly blended, like a nice, fine dice.

Place in a covered glass bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving, and 4 is better.

Serve Tapenade on fresh baguette slices or with little crudités, (AKA nice raw veggies like celery, carrot, radish, peppers, etc)

If you wanna look very fancy schmancy with little effort, grab some puff pastry or phyllo dough when you hit the grocery.

If you do the puff pastry version, spread a thin layer over a sheet to within a 1/2″ of the edge, then roll two edges up toward the middle. Toss that back into your freezer for about 15 minutes, then pull it back out and with a sharp knife, slice the roll into roughly 1/4″ thick slices. Pop those into a preheated 375 F oven for 10 minutes or until golden brown. They look and taste wonderful and are a breeze to make.

If you go the phyllo route, use 4 or 5 sheets, spread a little tapenade in the middles, wet the edge with a little melted butter and fold them into little triangles. 375 F for about 8 – 10 minutes or golden brown will do the trick.

Vas-y!

Smoked Guacamole

Smoked Guacamole
Here’s a great twist on the standard chip fodder. The lightly smoked components add a really savory, distinct note to a wonderful dip.

2 ripe Avocados.
1 medium Onion.
1 firm Tomato.
1-3 cloves Garlic.
½ fresh Grapefruit.
5 – 8 sprigs fresh Cilantro.
Juice of 1 – 2 fresh Limes.
Salt, Pepper and Chile flake to taste.

Build a small charcoal pile, then spread the coals to a thin, even layer.

Prepare some smoking wood of your choice by soaking it in water for about half an hour, then placing that on top of the hot coals.

Cut all ingredients to be smoked in half, and leave the skins on the halved avocado.

Load the grill with the avocados skin side up, and allow them to grill for a minute or two, then flip them to skin side down.

Add the onion, garlic and grapefruit to the grill, then close the cover and damper the vents so the air flow is minimal, allowing the smoke to work low and slow for about thirty minutes.

* NOTE: We didn’t smoke or grill the tomatoes, (Which were very fresh at the time), ‘cause they get too mushy, but my big Sis pointed out, post production, that green tomatoes are a thing of beauty, which is absolutely true: So try that option if you like, ’cause we’re sure gonna!

Allow the grilled/smoked stuff to cool. Dice the tomato, onion, avocado and garlic, then combine in a non-reactive bowl and mix well. Add chiffenaded cilantro, juice from one lime, and squeeze juice from ¼ of the grapefruit.

Add salt, pepper and chile flake to taste, and add additional lime and/or grapefruit juice as desired – When you get the balance right, you’ll have a nice, tangy citrus counterpoint to the smoky veggies.

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Oysters, Love ‘em or Hate ‘em?

‘Cause there ain’t no in between! You either hear folks say ‘Yum’ or ‘Etch!’; I’ve never heard a “Oh, they’re kinda OK…” from anyone, have you?

Alright, first to the basics!

If you’re gonna do oysters and you don’t live near where they come from, then get them from a place where they do, that you know if the best, freshest you can get, period! We don’t do oysters often, but when we do, we get really good ones and we do it from somebody who needs and wants the business. Take this opportunity to help out folks from the Gulf, you’ll make their day, get great food, and do good in the bargain. Here are some great options for y’all.

Zirlott’s is from coastal Alabama; family run, great food, great folks.

Tony’s Seafood in Baton Rouge is the same thing; local, fresh, great folks!

Now, a few points about delaing with ’em after you got ’em. Fresh oysters must be alive just before consumption. There’s a simple test for this: oysters must be capable of closing the shell tightly.
Open oyster? Knock on the shell; a live one’ll close up and is therefore good to go.
If they’re open and stay that way, they’re dead, so chuck ‘em, don’t shuck ‘em!
A dead oysters, or oyster shells filled with sand may stay closed, but they ‘clack’ when ya rap ‘em – That’s a no go too, (And why they’re called ‘clackers’)

Shucking oysters requires skill, ‘cause live oysters outside of water close themselves in with a powerful muscle to seal in their juices and survive.

The generally used method for opening oysters is to use a special knife (called an oyster knife, a variant of a shucking knife), with a short and thick blade about 2 inches long.

Best advice if you’re new at it? Buy ‘em shucked! If not, get a cut-proof glove for your holding hand! If you’re lucky enough to not cut yourself with the knife, you likely will on the oyster shell itself, which can be razor sharp, so be sober and extra careful throughout the process!

Slip the blade in at the hinge in the rear of the shell. Twist the blade until you hear and feel a slight pop. Now slide the blade upward to cut the adductor muscle (which holds the shell closed). Bingo, you’re there.

So, how to eat ’em?

On the Half Shell
Straight away, on a bed of ice. Slice lemons, fine dice onion or scallion, have a bottle of hot sauce on hand, and maybe some really nice fresh cracked pepper. Slide, don’t chew – If you’ve ever done that, you won’t likely do it again…

Deep Fried
Shuck and remove oysters from shell, rinse and trim thoroughly.

Build a dredge:
Mix well in a bag
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Pop oysters into the dredge bag and shake a few times. Tap excess dredge off before placing in the fryer.
Heat your oil to 375 degrees F and keep it there; that means introducing a single oyster at a time and allowing a little pause for your fryer to recover the desired temp before you add more: Keep the batches to 4 or 5 tops. Doing so assures you of light taste and minimal sogginess.

Pair with fresh homemade fries, onion rings, or coleslaw. Have plenty fo fresh sliced lemon ready too.

Oysters Rockefeller
8 large raw oysters.
1 Cup spinach, cooked and drained.
2 Tablespoons onion, chopped.
1/2 Tablespoon parsley, chopped.
1/2 stick Celery.
2 Tablespoons soft breadcrumbs.
1 tablespoons of butter.
1 lemon, sliced
Dash of salt
Dash of hot sauce.

Open the oysters, remove from their shells and drain. Reserve the shells.

Fill an baking dish, (Or individual ones), with rock salt.

Place reserved shells in each dish and put an oyster in each shell.

Saute your spinach in a little olive oil.

Rough chop the onion and parsley, (You can put ’em together, no problem).

Crush or juice celery and reserve 1/2 teaspoon juice.

Add celery juice, salt, hot sauce and breadcrumbs and saute over medium high heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

Spoon about 1 tablespoon of spinach mixture over each oyster.

Bake in a preheated oven at 400°F for 10 minutes, (Sauce should be bubbling nicely.)

Serve with plenty of lemon slices.

House and Semi-House Made

Comfort food is a wonderful thing, if for nothing else, than from the breadth and depth of the cornucopia. One of my favorite things to do is to twist a traditional recipe into something similar in feel but different in content; maybe that’s what folks mean when they call something “fusion” cooking, maybe not, but it works for me! Hence comes Enchilada Lasagna…

With noodles, (Mas o menos), made from Masa, homemade queso, and homegrown veggies, this is a real treat all around.

Queso Blanco and Queso Fresco are names that are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same beast: Both are white cheeses commonly made from fresh cow’s milk, are usually salted, and appear often in Mexican and South American cuisine, but that’s where the broad similarities end. Queso Fresco is made with rennet, used to form the curds. Queso Blanco uses an acid, such as vinegar, lemon or lime juice, to form curds. Queso Fresco will melt readily and is great for making its namesake dipping and topping salsa, know ubiquitously throughout the southwest as simply Queso. Queso Blanco does not really melt, but will become softer or creamer when heated. It’s sometimes known as queso para freir, literally cheese for frying; it retains its shape very nicely when fried, and takes well to breading or coating with herbs and chiles. The variations of these cheeses are as broad as the regions they are made in; they are not dissimilar in consistency to Feta or Peneer.

Queso Blanco

One gal whole milk, (Pasteurized or raw is cool, but ultrapasteurized is NOT!)
1/2 cup of white vinegar, lemon or lime juice
Salt to taste

Pour milk into a non-reactive pan on medium heat. Stir regularly to avoid scalding on the bottom of the pan. Using a cooking thermometer, track your temp throughout; you’re looking for 180º F.

If you’re using citrus for your acidifier, juice, seed, and measure. Lemon or lime juice adds a certain note to the flavor of your cheese that is very pleasant; I’m not sure how to specify what it tastes like, you’ll just have to try all three and decide which you like best. I have used cider vinegar as well and been very pleased with the results. My current favorite is lemon juice, FYI…

Add your acidifier: Curds will begin to separate from the whey right away; they are quite small in this cheese, (Noticably smaller than the Ricotta recipe I shared a while back, so if you see that and wonder, fear not!). The curds are about small pea size at best in this recipe.
Let the mixture simmer for a couple minutes and then carefully pour it off into a cheesecloth lined colander; be sure to use several layers of cheesecloth if you have the standard wide-weave kind you’ll find in the grocery or hardware store.

You can toss the whey, or you can save that to make ricotta with, or you can dump it into your compost heap.

Now is the time to salt the curds and add any herbs, chiles, etc; in this recipe, I’ve diced up some nice sweet peppers that will flavor this batch. Gently mix everything together. Note that you can add a bit more salt than you might like when tasting at this point – You’re going to hang and drain this cheese for a couple hours, and salt will be some of what goes away.

As we did with the Ricotta, bundle up your cheese, tie it off in a nice little ball and hang it from your faucet.

Draining your cheese is something that shouldn’t be rushed; I like to go at least 2 hours, and you can go well more than that if you want – The more you drain, the firmer your cheese!

Recipe yields about 16 ounces of lovely Queso. It will keep, well sealed, in the fridge for roughly as long as the expiration date on the milk you used, but really, it shouldn’t last that long, OK? Here’s what ours looks like with that fantastic sweet, red pepper in it. ¿Muy bonita, si?

Corn Tortillas, (in this case, AKA noodles)

2 cups corn Masa Harina, white or yellow
1 ¼ cups hot water
1 teaspoon salt

A starting note; make sure you get Masa, AKA corn flour, NOT corn meal – The latter will not do the trick!

Mix masa and salt in a bowl. Add the hot water and stir until you can handle the mix without it sticking too much to your paws; at first, the mix will seem a bit dry and that’s OK. Add more hot water a teaspoon at a time until you form a nice, semi-elastic dough that stays together and doesn’t stick to the bowl. Knead the dough for a couple minutes, adding tiny amounts of water or masa as needed to keep the dough workable and not too wet or dry; you want it to feel moist and workable, but not wet or sticky; it almost feels like a nice, loamy soil when it’s right, (If that makes sense…)

Pinch off a piece of dough and roll it between your hands into a golf ball sized chunk. Let these sit, separated and covered with a moist paper towel, on a plate for a few minutes. If you have a tortilla press, (Or your rolling pin, if not and that’s just fine too!), now’s the time to get it out, along with a gallon freezer bag cut into two equal pieces that you’ll use to hold your dough while you roll or press it out.

FYI, this ain’t like pie dough, so it is not gonna get tougher if you handle it:
Grab a golf ball and flatten it between your palms until it’s about a 3” circle. Place that between your plastic sheets and roll or press until you get a nice 6” to 7” tortilla; they can be a bit thicker than the store bought ones – Believe me, they’ll be WAY better tasting!

If we were making straight tortillas, we’d be heating up a dry cast iron pan or comal over medium high heat; cook the tortillas for about 45 second to a minute a side, then place them in aluminum foil in a warm place to rest for a bit until you’re ready to use them.

In this instance, I’m using the dough to make analog lasagna noodles, so I pressed out the dough until it’s just thick enough for my pasta roller to receive and worked it through once on the widest setting, then let the results sit and ry for a few minutes, (No additional cooking needed for this variation.)

Tomato Sauce

We’re gonna make a basic Mexican influenced sauce for this dish, from fresh tomatoes. We’re going quick and dirty here, ‘cause this is dinner on a working day, no guests, no time, no energy, so… Gonna forgo blanching, etc in the name of speed!

6 ripe tomatoes of your choice
1 clove garlic
5 or 6 sprigs of cilantro
Couple slices of large onion
1 medium hot chile of your choice
½ teaspoon cumin seed
¼ teaspoon annatto seed
¼ teaspoon celery seed
½ teaspoon Mexican Oregano
¼ teaspoon chipotle flake
Shot of vegetable oil
Dash salt

Cut tomatoes in half, rough chop garlic, cilantro, onion and chile; throw all that plus the oil into a blender or processor.

Combine cumin, annatto, celery seed, oregano, chipotle and salt in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind to a fine, even powder.

Add spice mix to veggies and blend/process until everything is nice and uniform. Open top of blender. Stick your nose in there. Breathe deep and marvel at your skillful handiwork. Go find other folk in the house, make them smell it and tell you how amazing you are…

Variation: You could substitute tomatillos for tomatoes in any percentage you like; doing the whole thing yields a gorgeous green sauce!

Now we’re ready to assemble the main dish. Lightly oil a glass baking dish, then begin by ladling some sauce in; smooth that out, add an even layer of protein, (Again, I used some killer fajita beef and chicken made by my pal Kevin, which I cubed. You could also use pork, or homemade Chorizo, for which there is a recipe lurking somewhere on this blog!). Add a sprinkling of cheese, then a layer of tortilla/noodle and repeat; I like to end with tortilla, as I think that lets the flavors get locked in and blend better as everything bakes. I topped this with some nice, sharp shredded Asiago, to further confuse the nationality of the dish and add a nice little counterpoint to the mild queso.

Bake at 350 for 35 to 45 minutes, until top tortilla is browned and everything is nice and bubbly. Allow to cool for 10 minutes on stove top prior to plating.

For topping, you simply gotta have some pico and guac, don’t ya think?

Citrus Pico

2 or 3 ripe, medium tomatoes
¼ to ½ medium sweet onion
5 – 8 sprigs cilantro
1 medium to hot chile of your choice
1 small lime
Shot of grapefruit juice
Salt and Pepper to taste

Dice tomatoes and onion, chiffenade cilantro and fine dice the chile. Add all to a nonreactive bowl. Juice lime over veggies, keeping seeds out of course. Add shot of grapefruit juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat and blend, allow to rest chilled for 30 minutes.

Guacamole Authentico

2 or 3 ripe, medium avocados
1 firm medium tomato
1 or 2 ¼ slices from a medium, sweet onion
½ small Shallot
5 or 6 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1 small sweet chile
1 small lime
salt to taste.

Skin avocados and remove flesh with spoon into a molcajete or nonreactive mixing bowl. Core, seed, and dice tomato to ¼”. Fine mince cilantro and shallot. Stem, seed, core and fine mince chile. Quarter the lime.

Mash avocado gently with a fork, leaving it with substantial chunks roughly ½”in size. Add tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro, and chile. Squeeze juice from ½ of lime, salt lighly and taste; add more lime as needed. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

To plate, shred a 50% – 50% mix of iceberg lettuce and red cabbage. Place shreds in a bowl and lightly salt and pepper. Place a mound of the shreds on a plate, serve a generous slice of the casserole on top, then add small spoonfuls of pico, guac, and sour cream. Serve with a nice, cold lager or pilsner.

Desert, anyone?

M loves sweets, especially good ones: I’m pretty sure I’ve shown the crème caramel variation of this incredible desert, but this time we’ll go for a very cool variation of that, which I dub Crème Añejo. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s fast and easy. Crème brûlée/Crème Añejo is a baked custard, as opposed to a stirred custard, (Done on a stove top in a double boiler); both are easy, but for my mind, letting the oven do the work while I read beats the crud out of constant stirring, so… Seriously, making these guys takes maybe 10 minutes, tops, so what are y’all waiting for?

Crème Añejo

1 quart heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, (You can sub ½ teaspoon of extract too)
1 cup vanilla sugar, (Split and scrape a vanilla bean into 1 cup sugar, let sit for 1 hr+, then remove bean)
6 large egg yolks
Double shot of Añejo Tequila, (Could use Rum, Bourbon, Scotch, or…)

Preheat your oven to 325º F.

Arrange 6 ramekins in a glass baking dish at least 3” deep.

Put cream, vanilla bean and seeds into a nonreactive pan over medium heat. Bring mixture to a rolling boil and then immediately pull it off the heat. Let the mixture cool, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean, which you can dry out and then use to make yet more vanilla sugar.

In a mixing bowl, combine ½ cup of the vanilla sugar and the egg yolks; whisk them together well. Now take the cream mixture and slowly pour that into the egg/sugar, whisking constantly.

For the Añejo caramel, pour the tequila into a sauce pan on medium high heat; Allow the booze to heat until the alcohol is boiled off; remove it from the heat.

Place the rest of the vanilla sugar into a pan on medium heat and allow it to melt thoroughly. Once it is liquefied, begin to add the tequila VERY SLOWLY – Liquid into caramelized sugar is volatile – The sugar superheats the liquid and will vaporize it explosively if you’re not REALLY careful about this process – Add the liquid a tiny bit at a time, stirring constantly and allowing the mixture to come to equilibrium before you add more. Once the booze and sugar are combined happily, add a tablespoon of butter and whisk everything together; immediately pour equal portions of the Añejo caramel into each ramekin.

Pour the custard into the ramekins to within roughly ¾” of the tops. Place the dish into your oven on a rack set in the middle position. Pour hot water into the dish until the water level is roughly ½ way up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Check for done by jiggling each ramekin. If the custard is done, the edges will look firm but the middles will still jiggle a bit; this is just where ya wanna be, as the latent heat in the custard will complete the cooking while they rest.

Refrigerate the custards for at least 2 hours, then pull ‘em out and let ‘’em sit in room temp for at least 15 minutes: Run a knife around the rim of the ramekin, and then quickly flip ’em over onto a desert plate and viola, instant bliss!

Serve with a sprig of mint as a garnish; stand back and keep your hands and feet clear as your guests dig into this stuff!

¡Salsa Fresca!

This just in!

Hey Eben and Monica,

OK, the tomatoes are now coming in faster than anyone wants to eat sliced, fresh tomatoes, and the time of salsa and stewed tomatoes is upon us.

I have made salsa a few times, but never really settled on a recipe. It has been good, but not great, and I’d like to take it up a notch. I also would like to make at least one big batch of real “chipotle” salsa with roasted __________ (peppers? jalapenos? tomatoes? what do I roast?) And how do I roast? On a gas grill, or in a gas oven (my only two available options, unless I start a fire in the guitar shop.) I have 4 kinds of tomatoes: Sungold Cherry (good for a sweet salsa?), Italian Plum, Oregon Spring medium big, red, slicing tomato, and an heirloom called Pruden’s Purple. I have mucho Jalapenos, plus several varieties of sweet peppers (Ace, Lipstick, Carmen, Banana.) Our Cilantro is at the coriander stage, so that will need to be purchased. I’ll also buy onions, as ours are small and probably too mild for good salsa zing.

When talking salsa recipes, one has to put their cards on the table about just how hot is hot enough. For me personally, I have had some changes to my innards, where my tongue can handle a lot hotter than my stomach and intestines, so if you would be so kind, please offer a variation on salsa recipe(s) that are closer to commercial “medium” than “hot.” I know I lose macho points for that, but physiological reality is reality.

Thanks!

Dennis

Oh it will absolutely be our pleasure, D-Man!! Salsa runs like water at our house; we always have several varieties working, as any self-respecting Tejano should! We’ll divide the subject broadly into fresh and cooked salsas and go from there.

Basic considerations for salsas are very loose; use whatever variety of tomato floats your boat; sweet, savory, peppery, any and every note can and will do nicely. Sweet onions are better than hot or too peppery; there are plenty of other flavor notes to pick up other than hot onions. Fresh cilantro is a must; if you don’t have it, don’t add it.

Now, let us address heat right up front. When it comes to using chiles, do use your imagination, but as Dennis alluded to in his request, in general it’s best to make things cooler than you might like if you’re a real ChileHead: If you’re making something to feed others, you really should make the heat level lowest common denominator. I don’t mean don’t have any heat in a salsa,, because to me, that’s just tomato sauce; I do mean build something reasonable that most folks can handle, and then add a side dish of fresh chopped chiles for your fellow ChileHeads to add as they see fit. As some of you know, I dig heat big time; that said, when we do salsa for others, we use one cored and seeded mild jalapeño for the chile and that’s it…

OK, let’s do the fresh stuff first; literally translated, Pico de Gallo means ‘Roosters Beak’ and maybe for that reason is also sometimes called Salsa Fresca. Pico is our personal favorite manifestation of the art. The essence of it is simply tomato and onion, though for our minds, you must have cilantro and chile as well. Pico lends itself to many, many things, from simple munching with chips, to a scoop on soup or stew or damn near anything else from eggs to enchiladas. Here’s the basic recipe we work from:

Classic Pico de Gallo

4 tomatoes of your choice, cored, seeded and diced
1 sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced
1-3 chiles of your choice, cored, seeded and fine diced.
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

Note: You might look at the recipe above and ask, “Sugar? huh?!” Well, in pico especially, salt and/or sugar can and will bring out flavor balances, so experiment and use them as you see fit.

Options:
MANY, is the bottom line. Add FRESH lime, lemon, orange, or grapefruit juice to add a great citrus note to the flavor. Juice a tomato and add that. Garlic, dill, shallot, annatto, chipotle, smoked paprika, smoked cherries, smoked salt, smoked pepper seed – Get the picture? Experiment and see what floats your boat!

Picante:
A lot of folks have asked about the difference between a pico style salsa and a picante style salsa; it’s a great question, not a dumb one! To us down here, pico is the raw, mixed veggie salsa with a minimal juice or sauce component, while picante is a salsa that is predominantly sauce-based. If you think of restaurant salsa, it is much more often picante style than pico. That said, there’s a broad assumption that picante style salsas are always cooked, and I’m here to say that it ain’t necessarily so; to me, the freshest and best picantes are NOT cooked, but that’s just me – You do what floats your boat, right? Right! One general note, the components of picante should be a finer dice/mince than pico; it’s just a bit more blended/refined…

Fresh Salsa Picante

4 tomatoes of your choice
1 onion, skinned and minced
¼ cup minced cilantro
2-3 chiles of your choice, seeded, cored and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, and cumin to taste.

Blanche your tomatoes; peel them all after blanching.
Take 3 of your ‘maters and put ‘em in a blender, processor, or have at ‘em with a boat motor until they are thoroughly liquefied. Add salt, pepper, garlic and cumin to taste to this liquid and set aside.

Dice your remaining tomatoes, and combine with onion, cilantro, and chiles. Add your liquid component and blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust spicing as needed. Refrigerate and allow to chill and blend for at least an hour prior to serving.

Cooked Salsas:
The primary delights of cooked salsa are twofold; one, you get a blending and sophistication of flavor that is not always found in a fresh salsa, and two, you get longevity, which is very good when winter days grow shorter, eh? That said, cooking a salsa also allows you to add subtlety of flavor that may not always fly in a fresh product, so feel free to think outside the box in this regard!

For recipe considerations, I offer the following:

Classic Red Salsa

10 -12 tomatoes of your choice
1-2 med onion, diced.
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 chiles, your choice, blanched, stemmed, veined and seeded.
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Blanch half your tomatoes, then peel and blend, puree or motorboat to a nice, even consistency. Put that mix into a sauce pan over medium heat.
Add oil to a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add onion and chiles and sauté for a couple minutes. Remove from heat and garlic and allow to sauté for another minute or two.
Combine sauted veggies, the rest of your tomatoes, Cored, seeded and diced), the cilantro, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer on low heat for about an hour. Remove from heat and place into a non-reactive container to cool. Will last several days refrigerated, also can be canned, of course!

Salsa Verde

10-12 tomatillos, husks removed, of course…
1-2 small sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 green chiles of your choice, (Anaheim or Hatch are nice), diced
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste.

Employ the exact same process as for the red salsa above and you’re good to go!

Smokin!
First and foremost is Dennis’ question above; how about chipotle? Yeah, buddy! Like I said above, we love jalapeños and eat ‘em like candy; we love chipotle just as much, you see, ‘cause they ain’t nothin’ more than a
dried and/or smoked jalapeño, and that’s a fact! Smoking or roasting your own chiles will get just the right note you want.

I take my chiles and roast them on the grill as my go-to method; just layer chiles on the grates and let ‘em have it until the skins are black and blistered. Remove them and allow to cool. You can skin, stem and seed then and further process for freezing or canning, or simply bag ‘em up, suck the air out and freeze ‘em right like that; all those options will work great and give a very nice flavor.

If you have a smoker, put a nice even layer of whole chiles under moderately low heat smoke, (Under 200 degrees for me) for 20 to 60 minutes depending on the level of smoky you want. I’ve smoked already roasted chiles and fresh ones; they all come out nicely. If I’m going to use the dehydrator and completely dry the peppers after smoking, I use fresh; if I’m gonna can or freeze, I usually roast lightly first, then smoke.

Fully dried, smoked jalapeños processed in your spice blender, (AKA a second, cheap coffee bean grinder), makes chipotle flake and powder, with which you can do SO much! For salsa, add your smoked peppers in lieu or in combination with fresh chiles to get the level of smokiness and flavor you like; that usually means making several batches to find just the right blend – Darn…

As for canning, while many have hot water processed salsa and done OK, I have to say that I prefer and advise pressure canning for all salsas; because of that, cooked salsas lend themselves much better to the process than fresh do, so keep that in mind as you haul out the canning gear this fall.

So there ya go, D-Man, did I cover everything?