Not Your Mom’s Sloppy Joe

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

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

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

Cuban sofrito

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

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

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

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

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

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

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

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

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

1 large yellow Onion

2 mild Anaheim Chiles

1 Green Bell Pepper

2 stalks Celery

2 Carrots

7 fat cloves Garlic

1 bunch fresh Cilantro

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

1 Cup stuffed Manzanillo Olives

2 Cups Beef Broth

2 Tablespoons Banana Vinegar (Cider vinegar will work fine)

2 fresh Limes

2 Tablespoons Non Pareil Capers with Brine

2 teaspoons Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Salt

1/2 teaspoon Cumin

3-4 Turkish Bay Leaves

5-6 twists of ground Black Pepper

4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil for cooking

Low and slow cross rib roast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always get your mise together

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

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

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

Measure out 2 tablespoons of capers with brine.

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

Measure out 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Measure out 2 teaspoons of oregano. 

Measure and grind 1/4 teaspoon of cumin.

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

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

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

Hand shredded beef for Cuban sloppy joe

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

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

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

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

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

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

Real deal Cuban Sloppy Joe

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

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

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

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

Let cook on a bare simmer for another 30 minutes.

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

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

A Story of Bitter Orange

This is a story of bitter orange, naranja agria. I came to love this little bundle of pucker power through the cuisine of the Yucatán peninsula. There, bitter orange is everywhere in the food, most famously in the signature dish, conchinita pibil, an intoxicating alchemy of naranja agria, chile heat, and low and slow pit cooking. While chiles and the Yucatán swing on pit barbecue are critical elements here, the one thing you absolutely can’t do pibil without is bitter orange.

Bitter Orange is seminal to a bunch more cuisines as well, from Cuban and other Caribbean islands, to Spanish, Moroccan, and Persian. This is not, for the most part, an eating or drinking orange and juice, although in Mexico, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them sliced, salted, and slathered in chile paste as a snack. These oranges are very bitter indeed, and sour to boot – Think more lemon or lime than orange in that regard. Yet the orangey notes are most definitely there, and that’s what brings the magic.

Naranja Agria - The noble bitter orange

Also known as Seville orange, sour orange, marmalade orange, naranja acida, naranji, melangolo, and even soap orange, Citrus x aurantium originated in Southeast Asia and spread rapidly around the globe. Natives of the South Sea Islands believe it hit their shores prehistorically. It was the sole European orange for hundreds of years, and the first to arrive on this side of the pond. Now grown commercially virtually worldwide, bitter orange trees range from maybe 10 feet to over 30 feet. It’s generally a thorny evergreen tree, with leaves and flowers that smell absolutely delightful, and smallish fruit, 2 to 4 inches or so, and thick, wrinkly, oily skins, (that make great marmalade, of course.)

The noble bitter orange tree

As favored as these fruit are to so many cuisines, it’s natural that numerous varieties have been established. Seville is probably the most internationally recognizable, but there’s also the English bergamot (bouquet here in the states), the chinotto from the Mediterranean, the daidai from Japan and China, the Californian goleta, the South American Paraguay, and the Indian karna – There’s a bunch more than this, but you get the idea – They’re beloved all over the place.

There’s a nice range of notable food uses for sour orange, other than powering sauces and marinades – The peels make amazing marmalade, of course. Oil squeezed from the peels is a signature orange flavoring for curaçao liqueur, candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and a bunch of other stuff. Orange blossom honey is a treat wherever you can find it. Orange flower water finds its way into Middle Eastern and Persian food. In quite a few places, the juice is fermented into wine – I’ve never tried that, but I’d like to.

There are some very interesting non-food uses for naranja agria, tambien – when the fruit and leaves are crushed together, they’ll lather in water, and are sometimes used as soap. The perfume industry loves the oil and flowers. The juice has antiseptic and hemostatic properties. And finally, the wood is nice stuff – Dense and hard, it was used in Cuba for baseball bats.

So, now that you’re all excited to join the party, it’s time for some good news/bad news – First, the bad – in all likelihood, you won’t find decent sour orange juice anywhere near you – In fact, you probably won’t find it at all. Oh sure, there’s stuff out there called bitter or sour orange – Goya, Badia, and Lechonera are the brands you’re most likely to see – But the fact is, none of them are bitter orange juice. They contain, variously, orange juice concentrate, other juices like lime, lemon, or grapefruit, and at best, a little bit of sour orange oil, and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives – the Lechonera brand, in fact, has lists propylene glycol as the seventh ingredient therein – In other words, at best these are shelf stable, pale shadows of the real thing.

So called ‘bitter orange’ marinade is anything but

The good news is, if you have a decent Latin grocery near you, there’s a 90%+ chance they sell fresh naranja agria, (and same goes for a Persian or Middle Eastern grocery, where they’ll probably call them Persian oranges). I get plump, juicy Valencias for around 50¢ a pop at La Gloria in Bellingham, WA. Do make sure you confirm they’re agria, (albeit they’ll probably have the little sticker on them telling what variety and place of origin they are). They’ll last like most citrus, good for three to four weeks refrigerated in a drawer designed for holding produce. Four or five is plenty to provide enough juice for most recipes. As with all citrus, look for firm, heavy fruit. More so than sweet oranges, bitters may have some green on their skins and still be ripe.

Now, what to do if you get a sudden hankerin’ to build something that calls for bitter orange when you ain’t got none? Then, it’s definitely time to fake it. As those commercial marinades indicate, the proper substitution is a combination of citrus juices, and maybe even some vinegar. The key here is the taste of orange forward in the mix, with the sourness of lemons, limes, and maybe vinegar – Again, naranja agria is really, really acidic – truly sour, with bitter notes from the oils. What you really need to do, assuming you’re into this, is try fresh squeezed sour orange juice, and then concoct what most closely resembles that to your taste – Everyone’s different, so your mix shall be your own.

When I posted a piece on pibil back in May of ‘17, I was using a mix of orange juice, lemon juice, cider vinegar, and tequila – And for the record, no, I don’t do that any more, and yes, I’ve revised that post. My current, (and consistently used), go to sour orange sub mix has morphed into equal portions of orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and a minor share of pineapple vinegar, (the latter comes from Rancho Gordo and is worth its weight in gold). I build it in just shy of one cup batches, like so,

 

Urban’s Faux Sour Orange

All juices fresh squeezed

1/4 Cup Orange Juice

1/4 Cup Grapefruit Juice

1/4 Cup Lime Juice 

2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (Good Cider vinegar is just fine)

Again, you’ll have to experiment and tweak things to your liking. Finally, here’s a Cuban inspired chicken dish that’ll take full advantage of naranja agria you can give a try to.

Urban’s Pollo Cubano

Urban’s Pollo al Cubano 

1 whole chicken, around 3 pounds

1 Cup fresh Bitter Orange Juice (or Sub)

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1-3 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles, (Assuming you can’t get fresh Cubanelles – If you can, do)

1 small Sweet Onion

1 Red Bell Pepper

4-6 fat cloves Garlic

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

2 Bay Leaves 

Salt and fresh ground Pepper

Butterfly the chicken, (if you don’t know this trick, check it out here)

Skin and trim onion and garlic. 

Fine dice onion, and mince the garlic.

Stem and seed chiles, then fine dice.

Stem, seed, and fine dice the bell pepper.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through. 

Add chiles, peppers, and onion. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

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

Remove veggie blend from heat and allow to cool to room temp.

Zest and juice whatever citrus you’re using.

In a non-reactive bowl, combine juice, zest, remaining oil, the cooled sofrito, oregano, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and a few twists of ground pepper. Whisk to fully incorporate.

Place the chicken in a baking dish as close to the size of the butterflied bird as you’ve got.

Pour the marinade on the chicken, and then rub it in by hand, making sure all exposed surfaces get coated, including underneath.

Allow the bird to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 – Any more than that can lead to a mushy chicken.

Bake the bird on a middle rack in a 350° F oven, or grill it if you prefer – 

I like to bake, because more of the marinade stays with the chicken.

Serve with rice, black beans, and cold beer.

Moros y Cristianos

Since rediscovering Rancho Gordo beans, and even joining the Bean Club, (which ain’t easy – It’s capped currently at 5000 members, it’s full, and there’s a substantial waiting list!), we’ve been more and more entranced with the diversity and wide ranging potential of bean dishes. These RG beans are just incredibly good, and you don’t need to be a Bean Clubber to enjoy them – Just head for their website, but be forewarned – This is the time of year when quite a few varieties are not available, a function of their small size and heavier than expected holiday demand. Fortunately, the dish we’re going to highlight today calls for black beans, and not only does RG have stunningly good options in that regard, but they’re in stock as I write, too. The Ayacote Negros are wonderful, as are the Midnight Blacks – so if this piece floats your boat, head on over to RG and snag some while the snagging is good.

Arguably, the most wonderful use for most wonderful beans are old school stuff that may have gone by the wayside, like Moros y Cristianos.

Great Cuban food always has Moros

If you’ve ever eaten authentic Cuban food, then you’ve likely had Platillo Moros y Cristianos. Also known as moro, moros, or arroz moro, this is the classic Cuban version of rice and beans. Widely served and loved in its home country, as well as throughout the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S., moros is a deeply nuanced dish with a wealth of wonderfully blended favors. Translated, moros y cristianos is Moors, (the black beans), and Christians, (the rice). The name harkens all the way back to the Islamic conquest of the Spanish peninsula in the 8th century. That event had profound effect on Spanish food and culture that resonates in this wonderful dish, for among many other staples, the Moors brought rice and beans, and a live of subtlety and complexity in cooking.

The Moorish influence on Spanish food and culture runs deep

Making moros y cristianos takes a bit longer than other variations on the theme, but rewards with truly amazing favors for your efforts. Served alone with fresh tortillas, it’s a deeply satisfying and filling treat. If you’re of a mind to pair with another protein, simple shredded beef, chicken, or pork is all you need.

image

For the Moros
2 Cups dry Black Beans
2 Tablespoons diced Onion
2 Tablespoons chopped Bacon
1 clove Garlic, peeled and rough chopped
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black Pepper

Preheat oven to 250° F.
In an oven-ready sauce pan with a tight fitting lid, add all ingredients, (and if you’re blessed with some kind of clay cooker, use that!)
Pour enough boiling water over the beans to completely cover by a good 2”.
Cover the pan and set on a middle rack.
Bake for 75 minutes, checking the water level after half an hour, and again at 45 minutes and an hour in. Add water as needed.
When beans are slight al dente, remove from heat and set on stove top, covered.

For the Cristianos
1 Cup long grain white rice
1/4 Pound Bacon
1 Cup diced sweet onion
3/4 Cup diced Green Pepper
1/4 Cup fine chopped Cilantro
3-4 cloves Garlic, peeled
1 Tablespoon Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground Cumin
1 Bay Leaf
Sea Salt
Olive Oil

Using the flat side of a chefs knife, smash the garlic cloves, then sprinkle lightly with salt and allow to rest for five minutes.
Mince rested garlic into a paste and set aside.
Chop bacon, then add to a large sauté pan, (with a cover you’ll use later), over medium heat and fry until crisp lardons are formed, about 5 minutes.
Transfer bacon from pan to paper towels, leaving bacon fat in the pan.
Add two tablespoons of olive oil to bacon fat, bringing heat back up to medium.
Add 3/4 cup of the onion, pepper, and garlic to hot oil,and fat and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 3-5 minutes.
Add dry rice, bay leaf, cumin, oregano, stir all to incorporate.
Taste and add salt and pepper as desired.
Add Beans and their liquid, and the vinegar, then stir to incorporate.
Cover and reduce heat to low.
Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, checking and stirring at around the 20 minute mark. Add a bit more water if things look too dry.

Homemade Moros y Cristianos

Serve piping hot, garnished with remaining onion and the cilantro, with fresh, warm tortillas.

Vancouver B. C. – Chinatown and Serious Ramen

M and I are on our second year of a tradition I’m liking very much – Since we live within rock throwing distance of the Canadian border, we go up for a few days the week before Christmas. It’s a good time, sort of a ’tween holidays lull. Last year was just a quiet trip to Harrison Hot Springs, which is lovely and quaint and very relaxing indeed. This year, we chose a different route, one that was guided by food as much or more as any other criterion.

Sure, we all eat when we travel, and often enough, it’s a focus, but what came to mind for us was going to Vancouver B.C. specifically for two things – First, to eat some great Asian food (and spark our own creativity thereby), and secondly, to do a recon cruise through Chinatown, maybe pick up some supplies.

The Hotel Listel in Vancouver’s West Side

We chose a nice hotel, smack in the middle of the West End, a relatively bohemian chunk of the city. Rents and incomes are middle of the road here. Roughly bordered by Stanley Park to the northwest, Chinatown and Gastown to the east, Vancouver harbor to the north, and Granville Island to the south, the West End is home to lots of art, great food, and plenty of sidewalk entertainment, (as in, just soaking up the vibe). There is marvelous, flowing diversity in the people, food, commerce, and art.

The Hotel Listel prides itself on great art.

Our hotel was the Listel, which was remarkable affordable given the obvious quality therein. They pride themselves on abundant art throughout the place, their environmental concern and awareness, (which is palpable – No plastic anything in the room, recycling containers, solar power generation, to name but a few), and their food, which for us was hot and cold. We ate at the Timber restaurant, where the staff and service were once again excellent, but dishes were hit and miss. The calimari and chicken wings were delightful, while the cheese dip and shore lunch were not so much – The dip itself was great, but the crackers and potato skins provided there with were not done at all well, and the fish, while obviously quality, came to us soggy and a bit tired. That said, room service breakfast was truly excellent – The eggs were obviously top notch, and I’d be excited about the Benedict wherever I was eating, but especially so in bed on a lazy Monday morning!

Our room in the Listel was seriously cozy

Our room faced an adjoining high rise apartment building, which initially might seem disappointing, but the fact is, this is how and where people live here, so it should be embraced – Families doing their thing, a hairless kitty in the window checking out the gulls – it was all rather nice. The staff and the people in general were remarkably friendly. The rhythm of the area varied from absolutely hopping when we arrived on a rainy Sunday afternoon, to comfortably relaxed on a weekday. The Listel has valet parking for an additional fee, (about $30 a night), which includes unlimited access when you want your ride. Staff were happy to offer good honest advice on destinations, including where not to park in Chinatown, (avoid parking garages where your vehicle isn’t in plain sight of the street). 

Vancouver Chinatown

Neither M or I had been in Vancouver for literally decades, so some broad exploration was in order. We started with Chinatown, which may have its share of touristy kitsch, but is still vibrant and genuine for the folks who live there. There is plenty of great food and some wonderful shops throughout, (like the original Ming Wo Cookware building, a truly scary place, in a good way). We sought advice from a knowledgeable resident, with an eye toward food that the locals buy and eat – He strongly recommended T & T Supermarket. There are three of these in Vancouver – we chose the one smack in the middle of Chinatown, at 179 Keefer Place, (there was ample street parking nearby on our weekday visit). 

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

First off, yes, this is a grocery store, but it’s certainly not your average one. We’re used to seeking out high quality ingredients when we shop at home, and to do that we visit a litany of smaller specialty shops and markets. This place has it all under one roof, (and our guide had been absolutely correct – we were part of a very small handful of non-Asian shoppers.)

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

The differences here lie chiefly in variety and quality. From staples like noodles, rice, flour, and oil, to incredible varieties of very fresh seafood, meat, and produce, T & T is stunningly good – If I lived here, this is where I’d shop, and in light of that, we’re already planning for our next stay to have cooking facilities so that we can do just that. On this recon trip, our purchases were kept to Christmas treats for the granddaughters, some wonderful dried noodles, and a bottle of aged black vinegar – You can bring quite a variety of personal use food items back to the States, and there’s a good resource for that here.

Our T & T stash

On the way out of Chinatown, we decided to cruise Gastown, and thought about stopping for a beer and a bite, but despite the outward charm, we found it all a bit too trite and decided to head back to the West End. Across from our hotel there was a little hole in the wall noodle place, Ramen Danbo, that always had a line in front of it, and often, a really long line. When we arrived, there were only four people out front, so we decided to go for it. There are two in Vancouver, one in Seattle, and one in NYC, augmenting the 20 shops throughout Japan. This one has only 28 seats, which explains some of the constant line, but not all – The lions share of that is due to the fact that this is really good ramen – Fukuoka style Tonkatsu, from the southern end of Kyushu, to be precise.

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Naturally, good quality, fresh noodles are critical to ramen, and these guys certainly have those, from thin to thick, and soft to firm, as you please. As with all great soups, though, it’s more about the broth and the base. Tonkatsu is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of Japanese ramen variants – it’s a complex, involved dance, indeed.

Ramen Danbo, Vancouver

First off, there’s the all important broth, that sublime elixir. It tastes simple as can be, and it may be, in terms of ingredients, but it’s sure not in terms of preparation. Traditionally, this is made from is pork trotters or knuckles, either split lengthwise, or whacked with a hammer to release the marrow, along with a few chicken feet, which add some serious protein, calcium, collagen, and cartilage to the mix, (AKA, some stuff that’s good for you, and some serious unctuousness). Add aromatics, (onion, garlic, ginger, leek, scallion), and finally, some fresh fatback, and then boil the shit out of it – In traditional circles, for as long as 60 hours, and you get this stock – Well, sort of anyway. Fact is, there is some seriously finicky cleaning called for to get broth as pretty as the stuff we ate at Danbo. Everything from those bones that isn’t white or beige has to go, or what you’ll get is a mud colored, albeit tasty broth, so some serious washing and nit-picky cleaning is in order. Unlike French stocks, this stuff is not clarified and filtered extensively before it’s served. With a bone broth cooked for as long as tonkotsu is, not only do you generate a bunch of gelatin, but virtually every other constituent gets into the act as well – fat, marrow, calcium from the bones themselves – All this stuff is why it’s so stunningly good.

Next comes the soup base. There are several primary Japanese variants – Tonkatsu, miso, shoyu, and shio – and Danbo does versions of all of those. Their signature base is ‘ramen-dare’, and they’re tight lipped about what’s in it – They say, and I quote, ‘our ramen-dare soup base is imported from Japan, made from select natural ingredients, and despite having low sodium, is filled with umami extracts.’ This apparent obfuscation is neither nefarious nor unusual, by the way. Like many signature ingredients, soup bases are closely guarded in Japan, so it’s next to impossible to discover exactly what’s in there. I sure don’t know what fuels Danbo’s dare, but I’d take a stab at kombu, plenty of shiitake, a little bonito, and a little shoyu – The Shiitakes would be the likely culprit for adding serious umami without a lot of sodium. As dark as the stuff looks in their menu pic, might be the possibility of deeply caramelized aromatics as well, (heavy on the onion, garlic, and ginger). The base is generally added to the broth in a ratio of around a tablespoon to a bowl, (or less, given how lightly colored theirs is when it hits the table.) 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Topping off Ramen Danbo’s offering is a little spoonful of red sauce – They call it tare, and all they’ll tell us is that it’s, ‘Togarashi red pepper powder mixed with Chinese spices and medicinal ingredients, this top-secret mixture brings out the flavour, umami, and full-bodied taste of our ramen,’ which significantly downplays what this stuff likely is – I’d guess that what we have here is a spin on classic Tonkatsu Master Sauce – a complex, heady mix of onion, tomato, garlic, apple, sake, kombu, hot chiles, and most if not all of the warm spices from Chinese five spice – Sort of a Japanese swing at Worcestershire sauce, (and some cooks put that into the mix, too). It is, in other words, seriously concentrated flavors, mouth feel and a decent punch in a very small package – Maybe a teaspoon crowns your bowl. 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Put all that together and you’ll be staring, glassy eyed, wowed, and very contently, at a mostly empty bowl if you’re me. Or you might be like the guy who sat next to us taking advantage of the kaedama offering – Additional helpings of noodles, which he did for a grand total of five servings – And He was a skinny little guy, too – Some guys get all the luck.

Rancho Gordo – Making beans sexy again

Let’s just address the elephant in the room, right off the bat – Beans are not exactly what one would call sexy food, right? Well, were we talking about the decidedly pedestrian offerings we’re all too used to seeing out there, I’d agree. Yet, when you consider what a little outfit based in California has been quietly doing for beans lately, the answer is a resounding, wrong – Because Rancho Gordo is making beans sexy again.

Some of the Rancho Gordo goods
Some of the Rancho Gordo goods

Back about a decade or so, I discovered Rancho Gordo and some truly amazing beans. No, seriously – Truly amazing beans. We’re talking the kind of beans that you try a couple of after they’re just done cooking, and then you raise an eyebrow, and then you try more, all the while thinking, ‘damn! Those are outstanding!’ – Beans that good. Then I kinda forgot about them, for who knows what reason, until just recently, when we were reunited. In the meantime, Steve Sando and the Rancho crew had gone from harvesting a few thousand pounds a year to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and many, many more varieties. What John Bunker has done for apples in Maine, Sando is doing for beans. NOTE: When I asked Steve what their current production was, he wrote, “A lot! We’re in the middle of planning and we’re not sure where we’ll land.”

Sando wasn’t an agricultural expert, by any sense of the words, when he started this endeavor. He’d been, in fact, a web designer, DJ, and clothing wholesaler who happened to like to cook. He also lived in Napa, one of the lushest areas for food and wine one could wish for. Yet when he headed out one day in search of good tomatoes, he found… Crap. Nada – Nasty, hard, hothouse tomatoes from Holland were the best thing in sight. Since he was already an accomplished Jack of All Trades, he decided to take a swing at growing heirloom tomatoes and other veggies he’d like to cook with. Eventually, that lead to beans, and therein was made a match in culinary Heaven. Sando and crew have, in fifteen years or so, gone from humble origins to major stardom in the foodie world, with luminaries like Thomas Keller using Rancho Gordo beans in his restaurants, and an heirloom variety named after Marcella Hazan.

If you haven’t read the recent New Yorker piece on Sando and Rancho, do. It’s a wonderful vignette of the work they do, searching out new-to-us but old bean varieties, and bringing them to the rest of us. As Rancho Gordo grows, so does the search – That has spread throughout the Americas, from modest beginnings in California, through Mexico, and in to South America, (with inroads to Europe, including that Marcella bean, which naturally has Italian roots.) Their Rancho Gordo Xoxoc Project teams them up with a very fine Mexican outfit, to bring stunningly good heirloom Mexican beans to the markets up here in Gringolandia.

these are not your average commodity beans
these are not your average commodity beans

Oh, those beans! Seriously! We’re not talking flaccid plastic bags full of dullness – we’re talking rock stars, peacocks, a veritable rainbow of delights for the eye and stomach. Go to the Heirloom Bean Page on Rancho Gordo’s website and you’ll see, currently, thirty varieties that shine and sparkle. There’s no dullness here – There are glowing tones of red, black, white, cream, and purple – Shining solids, stripes, and blends. Let me assure you that these gems look every bit as good in person, even after they’re cooked. 

And cook them you must, my friends. Yes, although I sound like a broken record, they are better than ‘that good.’ That’s important for a couple of reasons. First off, meatless meals are a thing we need to do more often. The world grows smaller as we continue to overpopulate it. Meat takes a hell of a lot of energy to produce, rather ridiculous amounts, truth be told. When we consider how and what and who produces food these days, things get grimmer yet. Up through most American history, well over 50% of the people lived in rural areas and were involved, in some degree, with farming and producing food. That figure is now around 1%, and ya can’t get a hell of a lot lower than that. Secondly, as agricultural area diminishes, or is generally overrun by huge corporate farming, diversity suffers foremost – That’s the reason why a visit to your local grocery finds those boring bags of industrial beans. Just as apples have rebounded, (leading to far greater availability of what were niche varieties), beans need to make that leap too, right into our gardens.

Beans are members of the legume family, which includes other such notables as peas, clover, and the lovely lupines that Monica planted out in front of our new digs this spring. Legumes have a great trick, a symbiosis with rhizobia, a common bacteria that are capable of fixing nitrogen, so long as they have a suitable host – Legumes provide that, so rhizobia settle into the plant’s root nodes and good things result. Instead of depleting soil, they enrich it. Fact is, planting beans or field peas at the end of your garden’s annual sojourn, (AKA, late fall), will not only help stabilize soils during the wet months, it’ll provide your next round of crops with a decent nitrogen fix, if you cut them down before they flower in the spring. 

And for the record, Rancho Gordo not only approves of, but encourages home cultivation – Right there at the top of the Heirloom Bean Page, it reads, ‘Heirloom Beans are open-pollinated seeds that can be planted and you’ll get the exact same bean. They tend to have a lower yield and can be much more difficult to grow but the pay off is in the unique flavors and textures that you don’t find with bland commodity beans.’ Hey, everybody needs to start somewhere, yeah? Why not start with the best? RG doesn’t stop there, by the way – Sando wrote, The Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, which’ll provide all the knowledge you need – Just add horsepower.

Then there are the nutritional considerations. Beans provide ample calories in a high protein, low fat package, with a low glycemic index, that includes complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and a generous sprinkling of vitamins and minerals. The USDA recommends we eat 3 cups of legumes a week as part of a healthy diet, and beans ought to be your star player in that endeavor. Now granted, all of that ain’t worth a Hill of beans if you don’t like the taste of ‘em. If what you’ve been exposed to is the seemingly endless world of canned and highly processed, or dried, low quality crap, who can blame you? Trust me when I say that Rancho Gordo is here to save the day.

As I mentioned, these beans are so far above the norm, they’re downright stratospheric. Go online, and look up threads of folks discussing cooking and eating these little beasties – you’ll read, repeatedly, something to the effect of ‘I was snacking on them so much, I was worried I wouldn’t have enough left for the dish I’d intended to make.’ They’re not joking. The first time I cooked some since my reintroduction, I experienced exactly that. Those were Vaqueros, by the way, gorgeous little black and white beauties that make amazing chili, (and are perfect for the Pacific Northwest – Their nickname is Orca Beans). Damn near anything and everything you want to eat with them or cook them into will be amazing, and just like that, your bean aversion is alleviated.

the Rancho Gordo label, delightfully campy and instantly recognizable
the Rancho Gordo label, delightfully campy and instantly recognizable

And the labels, well, those are just a fun, campy kick in the ass, far as I’m concerned. Sando was a web designer, you’ll recall, and he certainly does have an eye for catchy. They’re instantly recognizable, and downright appealing, and yeah, that kinda stuff does matter. Remember those dull, boring bags at the store? Well, screw that – These are as fun to look as they are to eat.

Alright, so whataya make with these things, anyway? Well, as I alluded to above, the sky’s the limit. From just beans, to salads, dips, and spreads. Soups, stews, and chili, to cassoulet, pasta y fagioli, and chakalaka, everything you make, from super simple to legendary, will be outstanding. For my mind, the simpler you start with, the better. Let the beans speak to before you layer them into other stuff. I’m not kidding. Eating these with an extraordinarily light seasoning hand will show you exactly what I’m gushing about. Sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of very good olive oil, maybe a chiffenade of a single, fresh basil leaf – nothing more – Yes, they have that much flavor and character. Do that, and on the second round, you’ll know exactly what each one will shone at when you really turn it loose. Your second wave might be a lovely bean and wild rice salad for something cold, or red beans and rice for a hot dish. After that, dive into the longer, slower stuff.

Now, when you want to genuinely layer up, and make something that will show what Rancho Gordo beans can really do, I’ll offer this recipe up, the very first elaborate one I made after RGB’s and I got reacquainted. I did it in an Instant Pot, (AKA, the IP, a truly spectacular electric, programmable pressure cooker, if you’re not familiar with them.)  I’ll recommend using one, because the primary benefit of an Instant Pot can be summed up as follows – The entire process can be done in that appliance, and the total cooking time is only 18 minutes, and that includes pre-cooking the beans, yet the finished dish will taste like you slaved away all day – Capiche? If you don’t have an IP, you can soak, parboil, or bake the beans first, (Type ‘Beans’ into the search box here and you’ll get a bunch of options in that regard), then you can slow cook them as you see fit.

Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP
Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP

Frijoles Vaqueros

1 Pound Rancho Gordo Vaquero Beans

1/4 Pound Pork (whatever version you’ve got on hand)

1 Cup Chicken Stock

1/2 Cup Sweet Pepper, chopped

1/2 Cup Onion, chopped

1/4 Cup fresh Cilantro, chopped

1 to 3 fresh Serrano Chiles, cut into roughly 1/4” thick rings

1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced 

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Garnish: Crema or sour cream, hot sauce, more cilantro, fresh lime, Pico de Gallo, and so on, si?

Veggie mise for the frijoles vaqueros
Veggie mise for the frijoles vaqueros

Add dry beans and 8 cups of water to the Instant Pot.

Set the IP to 8 minutes on Pressure and let ‘er rip.

I used precooked pork – Use whatever you’ve got, from ground, to whole, to bacon. 

If your pork is uncooked, give it a quick sauté to just brown it and get rid of most of the pink. When that’s done, transfer it to a small bowl and let it hang out while you continue. NOTE: If you’ve got a fatty cut of pork, trim the lion’s share and reserve it – You’ll use it shortly.

After the pressure cycle is completed, allow the pot to stay on Keep Warm mode for 10 minutes, then carefully release the remaining pressure on the IP. Use a towel or hot pads to grab the cooking vessel, then drain the beans through a colander – It’s always a good idea to save the pot liquor, it’ll be great for soups and stews down the line, and it freezes well.

Return the cooking vessel to the IP and set it to sauté.

When the IP is heated, add the reserved pork fat, (a tablespoon of avocado oil will do if you don’t have fat).

sautéing the veggies and pork fat
sautéing the veggies and pork fat

Allow the fat to melt (or the oil to heat through), then add the onion, sweet pepper, garlic, and chiles, and sauté, stirring lightly, until the onions start to turn translucent. 

Add the chicken stock, pork, beans, cilantro, and seasoning to the IP and lock the cover back down.

Set the IP for 10 minutes at Pressure and let it go.

When the pressure cycle is complete, press Cancel, and let the IP’s pressure bleed off through ‘Natural Release’ – It’ll be about 20-25 minutes before you can unlock the cover.

Give beans a quick stir, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve with whatever accoutrements you desire, albeit you’ll not really need anything else…

NOTE: Because I always get asked, I always point out the following – No, I do not get any sort of endorsement deal/perks/freebies from anyone or anything I review or recommend. I bought my Instant Pot same as you, as I do my Rancho Gordo beans and other goodies, (and oh boy, do they have other goodies – Go to the site and poke around, for cryin’ out loud!)  I recommend what I love, because I want to share it with y’all – It’s that simple. 

The volume of my Rancho Gordo stash, (and no, that’s not all of it, gang…) should illustrate the fact that I love their stuff. If, when you get there, six bucks seems expensive for a pound of beans, believe me when I tell you, it’s not. You’ll get a couple of great meals from that bag, without having to add a lot of other expense – That’s not pricy, that’s well worth your money, and you’re helping maintain little growers all over the place, as well as genetic diversity – Both very good things. 

I’ll also mention that I belong to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club, in which you get a big ol’ shipment 4 times a year for $40 a pop, which includes six bags of beans, plus another goody, (like red popcorn, hominy, or cacao, to name but a few, as well as free shipping for something else in that quarter, and a newsletter with great recipes. The club was closed at 1,000 members for quite a while, and then was recently expanded and reopened. If you really dig Beans, you’re a fool not to join. There’s also a FB group for the club, and there are truly spectacular recipes and dishes floating across that on a daily basis, including the incredible pizza bean dish.

Seriously, go check it out, and tell ‘em I sent y’all.

Hey, Sandbakkels! You’ve got A Way With Words!

Well, I’ve already heard from some folks this morning that our little blog just became a bit more popular, and for that, I’ve got A Way With Words to thank, so let me flesh out that explanation a bit. If you’re not familiar with this wonderful show/podcast, I encourage you to become so. It’s the NPR ‘show about language and the way we use it,’ hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and it’s a genuine treat for word nerds like me. Folks call in with questions about words, word origins, slang terms, etymology, regional dialects, and much, much more – It’s delightful and fascinating stuff. So, to all y’all who have journeyed here for the first time after hearing this week’s episode, welcome! If this post wasn’t waiting for you when you got here, my apologies – This is a journey that began way back in late March, so it’s required a bit of juggling to get things coordinated. but hey, you’re here now, and for that we offer Big Thanks and a hearty welcome – Please do subscribe and enjoy!

Anyway, here’s how it all started. While researching the subject of today’s post, a Norwegian cookie called the Sanbakkel, Monica came across the ingredient, Caster Sugar. Now, I knew what that was from many recipes over time, but it was new to M. For the record, Caster (and sometimes caster) sugar is the British term for what we call baker’s sugar on this side of the Big Pond – It’s granulated sugar that’s notably finer than table sugar. It blends, dissolves, and integrates far better than regular old sugar, and as such, bakers and chefs dig it. 

What I didn’t know is why it’s called caster sugar – A bit of research really didn’t give a lot of info, albeit it did reveal that the stuff used to be held in a sugar caster, (basically, a fancy shaker placed at table in the old days, where folks could cast it onto whatever the liked). The caster versus castor variant also piqued my interest, and there was virtually nothing I could find to explain that, so naturally, I called A Way With Words, and as fate would have it, I ended up on the show that was broadcast today. Rather than go too far into that rabbit hole, I’ll simply say, listen to the episode, and you’ll not only get a great fleshing out of the term caster, but you’ll hear yours truly as well –  A win-win if ever there was one.

So I ended up on the show, and had an absolute gas. For the record, while I noted that we live on Lummi Bay, in the northwest corner of Washington State, I recorded my part on a bus headed from downtown New Orleans to the airport. Along the way, Martha and Grant were kind enough to ask the name of the blog, and, well – Here we are! Now, as I write, a batch of fresh sandbakkel are wending their way southward to the gang at A Way With Words with our fondest thanks – Therefore, on to those cookies, yeah?

Sandbakkels with fresh fruit and crème fraiche
Sandbakkels with fresh fruit and crème fraiche

Monica has a healthy dose of Norwegian heritage from her maternal side, so a cookie that reflected that is what we were looking for when we landed on Sandbakkels. These lovely, light little sugar cookies are also sometimes called sandbakelse, or sandkaker – The sand theme running though this speaks to the shortbread-like consistency of the finished product – Sand tarts, if you will. They’re a simple sugar cookie that yields best results when the ingredients are as fresh as you can get.

Sandbakkels are traditionally a Christmas season treat, but for my mind, they’re good, if not better, in the spring and summer time – More on that thought in a bit. In their purest form, Sandbakkel contain flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. Common additions include almonds or almond extract, vanilla bean or extract, and cardamom. For the latter while virtually no recipes I found specified what variant of cardamom gets used, I’d bet on it being green, freshly ground, as it’s the sweetest version, (versus black or Madagascar). 

The coolest aspect of Sandbakkels, for my mind, is the use of small fluted or patterned molds used to bake the cookies – This leaves you with a wafer thin, delicate little treat that is wonderful all by its lonely, and for my mind, spectacular with fresh fruit, nuts, etc, (even if some Norwegians consider such additions blasphemous).

The first published recipes for Sandbakkel show up in mid 19th century Norwegian cookbooks, which indicates pretty strongly that they’d been around for a while prior – A point that A Way With Words often makes about stuff showing up in print. When Norwegians packed up to emigrate, they brought their Sandbakkel molds with them, and a delicious old country traditional was maintained. Such was the case for Monica’s Gramma, Palma Hoover (née Solvang), who came to the western side of Washington State and homesteaded in the Carnation Valley, back in 1907 – Palma was just six month old at the time, one of eleven siblings. There is some discussion about where and how Sandbakkels took hold back in Norway, but nothing definitive – They are, in all likelihood, a simple treat that spread because they’re pretty, fun to make, and delicious – All the reason any of us need to dig in, right?

Sandbakkels are quite simple, and as such, quality and freshness of ingredients is paramount. What I’m getting at is this – If I’m doing these for an event, then I’ll likely make butter from very fresh, local cream, and grind flour from fresh wheat – Now, you might call that extreme, and it may indeed be somewhat, but if you’re looking to produce your best, that’s kinda the level we go to. That said, making sure that the flour and butter you use is as fresh and good quality as you can get your paws on will do the trick.

So, find the freshest butter you can for starters. Then there’s the flour question. Most stores these days will offer bread and all purpose flours, and many will also have cake or pastry flours hiding somewhere. Keep in mind that as you descend through that list, what changes is the protein level they contain – Bread relies on good gluten development to be successful, and so the protein level in that flour is relatively high, as much as 14%. Down at the other end of the spectrum, pastry flour will have protein levels as low as 8% – What that means to us from a practical standpoint is this – If you want gluten development and chewy stuff like bread, you use bread flour, and if you want something delicate and flaky like a Sandbakkel, you’ll use pastry flour. Now, that said, if what you’ve got in your pantry is All Purpose Flour, don’t fret- AP usually weighs in around 9% to 11% protein, which means it’ll do just fine, if that’s what you’ve got – After all, we’re here to have fun and chow down, si? NOTE: check out our Flour Power post for more than you probably want to know about such stuff.

Now for the catch – Yeah, it’s those little Sandbakkel molds. If you’re doing these right, you need them. Fortunately, they’re cheap and widely available online, so grab a set – They pay back the minimal expense with lovely finished product, so it’s a worthwhile thing. When you get your molds, they’ll need to be seasoned once prior to use. 

Seasoning Sandbakkel Molds.

Wash your molds with soap and water, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry.

Preheat your oven to 350° F.

Lightly grease your molds with leaf lard, then arrange in a baking sheet.

Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, then remove and allow to cool to room temperature. Wipe excess lard off the molds, and you’re good to go – The molds will provide a long life of easy releases thereafter.

So, on to the goods. This recipe will make about 4 dozen cookies. You can, if any survive, freeze them if you wish. Although they won’t be quite as yummy, of course.

Sandbakkels

4 Cups Pastry Flour (AP is just fine too)

1 1/2 Cups Unsalted Butter (If you use salted butter, just omit the additional salt listed below)

1 Cup Bakers Sugar

1 large Egg

1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before proceeding.

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, add the butter and hand whisk for 2 minutes – You’re preparing the butter to accept sugar and go through the creaming process, so take the full time allotted, (And you certainly can use a hand mixer to do this work if you wish.)

Add sugar and salt to the butter and whisk to combine thoroughly, about 2 minutes. This is ‘creaming,’ wherein you’re introducing a bit of air to the dough, and helping the sugar to disperse thoroughly and evenly.

Add the egg and whisk to incorporate thoroughly – About 1 minute.

Add flour a cup at a time, whisking as long as you can, then switching to a kitchen spoon to finish the job. The dough should not stick to the bowl or your fingers when you’re done mixing, so adjust flour a pinch or two at a time, if needed.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough or 1 hour. 

Preheat oven to 340° F, and set a rack in the middle position.

Even though your molds have been seasoned, it’s never a bad idea to grease them a bit more. Let a very little bit of butter melt onto your fingers, and wipe a light layer around each mold.

Rolling 2 teaspoon balls of Sandbakkel dough can help with portioning
Rolling 2 teaspoon balls of Sandbakkel dough can help with portioning

Pull off about 2 teaspoons of dough, (and if you have issues with portioning, feel free to roll out little 2 teaspoon balls before filling the molds), and press the dough evenly into the molds – Watch your thickness, as you want things nice and even – Avoid thick bottoms and thin sides, and don’t let any dough extend beyond the rim of the mold. And by the way, this is a gas for kids – Our Granddaughters dig it big time, and I’ll bet you’re will too.

Fill Sandbakkel molds evenly as possible
Fill Sandbakkel molds evenly as possible

Place molds evenly spaced on a baking sheet – Ideally, you want an inch or so of free space around each mold, so you will likely need to do multiple sheets or batches, (unless of course you’ve got a way sexier oven set up than I do, and if so, I salute you!)

Bake cookies at 340° F for about 10 minutes, then have a quick look – The upper edges of the cookies should be firm and light golden brown.

Sandbakkels, fresh from baking
Sandbakkels, fresh from baking

Remove sheets from oven and, using a hot glove or mitt, gently turn each mold upside down and place it on a cooling rack.

Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes, then carefully pick up a mold, still upside down, and place it just barely above the cooling rack – tap lightly on the bottom of the mold and the cookie will drop onto the rack.

Allow unmolded cookies to cool to room temperature. And yes, at this very point, the cookies will be warm and vulnerable – It’s entirely likely that several will lose their fragile lives right there and then – So be it…

Now, for a last bit of pure joy, consider this – As mentioned, I have Norwegian friends who absolutely consider anything, (and I mean anything), added to a fresh Sandbakkel as an act of sheer blasphemy. For the record, I am not Norwegian, (Scots, Welsh, and Dutch), and Monica has German and Cherokee blood as well – So, yes Virginia, we add stuff to ours, and we think you should too. This is why, point of fact, I think that these little gems were meant to be enjoyed when fresh, local fruit is abundant – A Sandbakkel filled with such stuff is an unbelievably delicious treat.

Sandbakkel blaspheme? I don’t think so...
Sandbakkel blaspheme? I don’t think so…

This also means that you might want to whip up a bit of crème fraiche, or perhaps whipped or pastry cream, as a bed for that lovely fruit to sit on. If the cream seems a bit heavy to you, then a lovely, light fruit glaze might be a nice option.

a simple fruit glaze is a nice touch
a simple fruit glaze is a nice touch

Fresh Fruit Glaze

3/4 Cup fresh Fruit Juice, (literally, whatever you like – Orange, grapefruit, apple, grape, etc)

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (honey is fine too, or bakers sugar, for that matter)

2 Tablespoons crushed Fruit, (whatever you’re filling the Sandbakkels with)

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot, (Cornstarch will do just fine, too)

2 teaspoons Citrus Rind, (lemon, lime, orange, as you see fit)

In a small, unheated sauce pan, combine fruit juice and arrowroot until thoroughly mixed.

Put the pan on the stove over medium heat, and add the agave and crushed fruit, whisk to incorporate.

Heat through, stirring steadily. Reduce heat to low and continue whisking until the sauce thickens notably, (it should evenly coat a spoon when quickly dipped in the glaze.)

Allow the glaze to cool to room temp, then drizzle or brush onto the fruit after arranged.

Chow down with relative abandon.

Pão de Queijo – Brazilian cheese bread

Just got home from a brief biz trip to New Orleans. It was in the 70s and 80s, mostly sunny, humidity not too bad. And here, well… Let’s just say that the Great Pacific Northwet is living up to its name – It’s 44° F, raining heavily, and the next week’s forecast is for more of the same. As M headed for work, she gave me the lowdown, “There’s crack ham in the fridge, (AKA, honey baked – She worked there for a time back when, and she’s right – it is), so if you want to make split pea soup, go for it.” I do, and I am, but this kinda weather calls for serious comfort food reinforcements – In this case, Pão de Queijo – Brazilian cheese bread.

Our Split Pea soup
Our Split Pea soup

How I ended up here is lovely serendipity. I planned on making either biscuits or corn bread, but was plowing through some social media food groups I belong to, and in of all places, my favorite Vietnamese cooking group, somebody mentioned having made Brazilian cheese bread. One of the many reasons I love this group is that stuff like this shows up all the time – They’re incredibly talented Vietnamese cooks, but fearless and curious in any and every other cuisine that floats their boats. I was introduced to Pão de Queijo years ago at a churascaria down in Texas, and hadn’t thought of or made them in quite a while, so this was a pleasant reminder.

Pão de Queijo is part of a truly delicious branch of cheese breads fueled by cassava (AKA yuca) flour, rather than wheat. As we outlined pretty thoroughly in our post about Guarani Cuñapes, cassava is a dominant starch down south, and for good reason – It’s abundant, works well in place of wheat flour, and tastes great – For gluten intolerant folks, it’s a champ.

Påo de Quiejo - Brazilian Cheese Bread
Påo de Quiejo – Brazilian Cheese Bread

The Pão variant differs from Cuñapes in recipe and construction. While they’re similar, the texture and flavored each is unique, so it’s genuinely worth adding both to your arsenal. To me, the pão de queijo is denser and chewier than a cuñape – More like Yorkshire pudding, for my mind. Best of all, they’re super easy to make – Maybe thirty minutes from start to finish, so they lend themselves to last minute inspiration, as any good side should.

I’ll share the simplest method of many for making these little gems. Like all signature foods, everybody’s Mom makes them, and their way is always best, naturally. Some folks use potato starch in lieu of yuca, and you can get very nice results that way. I’ve also seen these done up with the French pâte a choux method – They were delicious indeed, but really, those are gougères rather than pão de queijo. The method I’ll share is far less fussy and time consuming than that, especially in light of the cassava flour – That stuff behaves quite differently when employing the pâte method, and can be a handful if you’re not ready for it – It’s extremely fine, almost powdery, and when mixed with liquids, its, well, seriously glutinous stuff. Truth be told, my Brazilian cooking pals tell me that what I’ll share with y’all is the way they do it most of the time, because it strikes a perfect balance between taste, texture, and ease of preparation.

Påo de Quiejo - It’s a glutinous batter, even if it’s gluten free
Påo de Quiejo – It’s a glutinous batter, even if it’s gluten free

Finally, we must discuss cheese as well, sim? Down south, the traditional choice is either a quiejo de Canastra, or a quiejo de Minas. Canastra is a yellowish, cows milk cheese, fairly soft when it’s fresh and ripening to semi-hard. It has a buttery base flavor with a nice acidic tang – Very much like high quality Monterey Jack. Quiejo de Minas is also a cows milk cheese. When fresh, (Minas Frescal), it’s soft and very subtle, like a queso blanco, and lends itself well to adding fresh herbs into the mix. Once it’s aged into a Minas Curado, it’s a whole ‘nother world – rich and subtle like a good Asiago. While the vast majority of pão de quiejo recipes you find use Parmesan, for my two cents worth, a good Jack or Asiago will fit the bill much better, in both authenticity and flavor. Down the line, you can and should experiment not only with cheese, but with herbs as well. Cilantro, fennel, spring onion, parsley, and dried chiles are all delicious and opções muito autênticas, (very authentic options).

This recipe is fairly large, for good reason. The batter is stable and stores well, so you can use half tonight, refrigerate the rest, and it’ll be good for a week or so in a clean, airtight container. If you prefer to let ‘er rip, you can make the whole shebang and refrigerate or freeze whatever you don’t eat right away, (but be forewarned – They’re addictive little beasties, and you’ll easily be tricked into chowing down.) The recipe will make about 16 muffins.

NOTES: It’s best to have your milk and eggs at or near room temperature, so plan ahead accordingly. You’ll also need a muffin pan or two – They come in various sizes, but you’ll fare much better with ‘mini’ sizes, (muffin or loaf), as these guys will come out very dense indeed if you use regular size pans.

Påo de Quiejo - Brazilian Cheese Bread
Påo de Quiejo – Brazilian Cheese Bread

Påo de Quiejo, Brazilian Cheese Bread

3 Cups Cassava Flour
1 well packed Cup Monterey Jack or Asiago Cheese
1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Eggs
2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Set a rack into a middle position and preheat your oven to 400° F.

Wet a paper towel with avocado oil and lightly wipe the insides of each muffin cup.

Add all ingredients to a blender or processor vessel, (either truly works fine, so use what you’re most comfortable with.)

Pulse the batter until it’s smooth and consistent, scraping batter down into the mix as needed. Allow plenty of mixing time, until you’ve got a consistent smooth batter – This also allows some air to get integrated into the mix, which is important for helping these unleavened breads rise.

Fill muffin cups to roughly 1/4” from the top.

Bake, undisturbed for about 20 minutes, until the muffin tops have visibly risen and are light golden brown. There’s no leavening agent, so steam plays a roll here – Opening the oven will screw with that, so don’t!

Påo de Quiejo - Perfect accompaniment to soups and stews
Påo de Quiejo – Perfect accompaniment to soups and stews

Remove muffins from oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes, then chow down.

Apreciar!

Very Cool Guide to Common Veggies

The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces
The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces

A friend turned me on The Plant Guide, a pretty cool site with some fine gardening tips and tricks. They also have a definite bent for the history of things, just as we do here, including a very cool bit on the origin and history of common veggies and fruit.

A fair amount of this falls into the not what you expected category, and can definitely lead to some interesting further exploration.

check out the veggie history bit here.

Tajine – A dish and pot from North Africa

I admit it, I’m obsessed with clay cookers. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. It’s not a stretch in any way to say that cooking in clay has been going on since deep into prehistory. By 400 B. C., earthenware was being mass produced in several places around the world. The advantages were obvious, and in this age of renewed interest in slow food, they are again. Clay cooking adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a dish, a subtle, earthy note and a distinct juicy, tenderness. Today, we’ll take a look at the tajine, a dish and pot from North Africa.

You’ve seen a tajine, even if you didn’t know what it was called. It’s that elegant, conical pot you see on food porn shows and sites – and they’re truly magical. As noted above, tajine refers both to the cooking vessel and the dishes that are cooked and served therein. Now, first question answered – No, you don’t have to buy the pot to make the dish, but yes – it will taste that much better if you do.

Real deal tajine - unglazed and hefty
Real deal tajine – unglazed and hefty

A tajine, (or Tagine, Maraq, or Qidra, depending on where you are), consists of two parts – A shallow, round pan, and a tall conical top that fits snuggly inside the rim of the pan. The pan and top are rather thick on a tajine made for cooking, around 1/2” to 3/4”. This implies that there are tajines not made to cook in, and indeed, there are – Many of the shiny glazed, highly decorated versions you’ll find as you delve in are in fact not cookware, but meant just to present and serve a dish. From a reputable seller, they’ll be clearly marked as a serving tajine, (And woe betide the cook who doesn’t do their due diligence). Serving tajines are thinner, and will fail in a spectacularly catastrophic manner if an attempt to cook in them is made – Don’t be that cook. If you’re interested in buying, get an unglazed, hefty, genuine article, something made in Morocco, specifically called a cooking tajine. For the record, tajines can be found made of numerous things other than clay – aluminum, cast iron, steel, and enameled metal among them. That said, if you want the real genuine article, it’s gotta be unglazed clay – More on that shortly.

The magic that a tajine imparts derives from that conical top. It’s hollow and sports a small hole placed very near the apex. On the outside, there’s what looks like an egg cup set atop the cone. Every aspect of this device is intentional and adds to the voodoo the tajine do do. That cover is designed to collect and condense moisture from the cooking food and return it to the pan. The little hole in the top regulates steam pressure within the vessel. As such, when working with a clay cooker, very little water or stock is generally added to the dish, because it’ll generate its own. The little egg cup at the very top of the pot is filled with cold water, and serves to improve condensation while cooking. Magic, I tells ya.

The pot is truly ancient, dating all the way back to the 800’s in Arabic literature, which certainly implies it was around well before then. This was during the reign of the Abbasid Empire, which sprawled from southern Spain to Northern Africa and most of the Middle East. These days, the pot and the dish see heaviest use in North Africa, with the Middle East a close second, and France a surprising third – They’re popular enough there that legendary French cookware maker Le Creuset makes an enameled, cast iron version.

Naturally, my magic claims beg the question – Is there reputable science behind that? Well, as oft is the case, some say yes, and some say no. The most common claim is that unglazed clay adds flavor to a dish – I’ve got quite a few clay cookers, and I swear that’s true, as do a whole bunch of cooks and chefs around the world. As a clay cooker gets broken in and acquires a history, the more pronounced that ‘certain something’ it imparts becomes. It’s subtle, but it’s there, just as cast iron imparts. Scientists, including Harold McGee, poo poo this claim, but nonetheless, I swear it’s there – Oh, and yes, curve balls do curve.

Taste claims aside, there are thermodynamic reasons clay cookers do what they do. Clay is a good insulator, the exact polar opposite of the claim most cookware makers like to tout – that is, how well their stuff conducts heat. Naturally, this begs the question, why would we want an insulator to cook in? The answer is relatively simple – Because if you truly want to cook something low and slow, an insulator will do a far better job than a conductor. Conductive materials absorb and pass heat to a dish relatively quickly, while insulators do both on a much slower time line – Low and slow. This is especially important when cooking proteins like meat and poultry – Fast and hot makes meat tough, especially the cheaper, tougher cuts, while low and slow makes them fork tender and delicious – Every bowl of beef stew or plate of pot roast attests to this.

Furthermore, thermodynamic laws dictate that the property of a good insulator holds true regardless of temperature. Doubt that fact? Take our Romertopf cooker as an example then. These folks tell you to crank the heat up 100° F above your normal roasting temperature – 450° F for a whole chicken. The Romertopf will cook that bird perfectly. With nothing more than a little salt and pepper onboard, it’ll be one of the best chicken you’ve ever tasted. Think about it – Clay cooker are ancient and yet they’re still around, all over the world – Thousands of years of culinary experience cannot to be denied. The fact is, all the modern cookware versions of low and slow cooking are okay, but they pale before the real thing.

Traditional tajine is cooked over coals, the African answer to a Dutch oven. Here in the West, you can get it done that way, on a stove top, or in the oven. They key here is to avoid thermal shock, a thing that can and will lead to a cracked tajine. A gas cook top works great, while electric or flat top is a bit trickier – Their tendency to cycle the heat can play havoc with the cooker, so a diffuser is needed to even things out – That’s just a chunk of steel or aluminum that sits between burner and tajine, (they cost about ten bucks). You can cook with a tajine on your gas or charcoal grill, so long as you don’t ramp things up too high. Medium low heat is the rule, regardless of the method. That means that dishes cooked this way aren’t gonna go fast, so one must plan accordingly. And by the way, those metal bottomed tajines are specifically designed for stove top cooking.

As with virtually every clay cooker, there are seasoning steps that must be done to properly prep your cooker for a long, useful working life. Unglazed tajines must be immersed in water for a minimum of 2 hours, (and overnight isn’t a bad idea at all). Once they’re soaked, they’re patted dry and left to air for an hour, then lightly rubbed with olive oil. Seasoning is done by placing the tajine in a cold oven, then cranking the heat to 300° F for two hours. Turn the oven off, leave the tajine in there to cool completely. Once cooled, give it another light coating of olive oil, and you’re good to go.

So, what about the dish that shares the pot’s name? They’re predominantly Moroccan, but they’re popular throughout the Maghreb, (that includes Tunisia and Algeria). The roots stem from the collision between hometown Berbers and invading Muslim Arabs, back in the 900s – That’s when middle eastern spices met Berber stews, and a beautiful thing was born. The result is the spice blend known as Ras el Hanout, the Head of the Shop.

Ras el Hanout, as the name implies, is the best a spice shop has to offer. Like certain molés, it’s a very complex mix indeed, and like so many regional favorites, everybody has a different version, and their’s is best, no doubt about it. It’s used for everything from tajines, to a rub for meat or fish, to an adjunct for rice and couscous dishes. It’s hefty, complex, and heady, and it’s what really gives tajines their kick. Purists will claim a proper Ras el Hanout must have exactly so many ingredients, and again, whatever theirs are would be the only proper mix. The list for potential contributors is long – allspice, aniseed, ash berry, cardamom, chiles, chufa, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cubeb, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise, mace, nutmeg, long pepper, and dried rosebuds are just a start.

Those ingredients and blends will change radically in countries other than Morocco. Truth be told, a day to day tajine won’t have the full monty ras el hanout on board – They’ll use a few favorite spices, just as we would with a casserole or stew – The full Ras is for special occasions. Tunisian tajine is very different from this – A stew base is seasoned with the Berber mix Baharat, (a close but distinct cousin to ras el hanout.) that is thickened with bread or flour, and then has egg and cheese added – The end result is more like a frittata than what we’d think of as a North African stew. A quick internet search will yield you a bunch of options for any or all of these.

Here’s a fine chicken tajine to get you started. If you don’t have a tajine, don’t sweat it – a braiser or Dutch oven will do OK in a pinch. Same goes for the spice blend – Use what you’ve got and don’t sweat the rest, it’ll still be very tasty. If you catch the bug, you can branch out and go wild. The one thing worth chasing down here is nigella seed – You can find those at a speciality grocer or online. They have a unique, nutty, shallot-like flavor that’s a signature note to this dish. You’ll note that the tajine shown herein has more veggies than what’s noted in the recipe – That’s intentional – Folks will put in what they’ve got, and what they like when they make one – I did, and you should too, yeah?

Moroccan Chicken Tajine

1 whole Chicken
2 medium Onions
1/2 Cup pitted Olives (red or purple)
1/3 Cup Water
1/4 cup Avocado Oil
3-4 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Preserved Lemon (1/2 Fresh is fine)
6-8 sprigs Cilantro
2 Tablespoons Nigella Seed
1 Tablespoon Butter
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
3/4 teaspoon Grains of Paradise (Pepper is just fine)
1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Saffron threads, crushed

Mis en place for tajine
Mis en place for tajine

Cut chicken into pieces, (you can butterfly it and then cut pieces if you wish)

Tie cilantro sprigs into a bouquet.

Cut lemon into quarters.

Peel, trim and chop garlic.

Peel, trim and chop one onion, and cut the other into roughly 1/4”thick rings.

In a heavy sauté pan, toast nigella seeds until fragrant. Grind half and leave half whole.

Spice blend for tajine - Smells as good as it looks
Spice blend for tajine – Smells as good as it looks

Pour olive oil into the bottom of your cooking pot. Cut the butter into small cubes and distribute evenly. Evenly arrange the onion rounds over the oil.

Layering a tajine
Layering a tajine

In a large mixing bowl, combine chicken, chopped onion, garlic, all nigella seeds, and all spices. When the ingredients are well mixed, arrange the chicken pieces evenly around the cooking pot, bone side down.

Pour the water into the mixing bowl, and swish things around to get all the left over spice and veggie bits. Pour that into the cooking pot as well.

A big part of the fun with tajine is arranging things
A big part of the fun with tajine is arranging things

Distribute olives around the pot. Squeeze the lemon quarters over the chicken and toss them in too. Add the cilantro bouquet.

If you’re cooking in a tajine, put the cover on and put the pot on a diffuser over a burner on medium low heat. Cook for 11/2 to 2 hours, checking at the one hour mark to make sure there is sufficient liquid in the mix. If it seems a bit dry, add a quarter cup of water and re-cover. When done, the chicken should be fork tender, and the sauce thick enough to coat a spoon. If you prefer to use the oven, put the loaded tajine into a cold oven on a lower center rack. Bake at 350° F for 45 minutes, then check liquid level and adjust as needed. Cook for another 30 to 45 minutes until chicken is fork tender.

If you’re cooking in a Dutch oven or casserole, cover and heat over medium high until the stew begins to simmer. Reduce heat to just maintain a simmer. Check at thirty minutes for liquid level and adjust as per above. When the chicken is tender, pour off the sauce and thicken in a sauté pan if it needs it.

Chicken tajine - A thing of beauty
Chicken tajine – A thing of beauty

Serve with flatbread, and maybe a cool cucumber salad, or a cold rice or couscous dish.

Perfect accompaniment to a lovely tajine
Perfect accompaniment to a lovely tajine

Brie du Monde

I’m not at all sure why more folks aren’t madly in love with Brie. After all, it once was quite literally declared the cheese of Kings. In late 1814 through mid 1815, the Austrians hosted the Congress of Vienna, a meeting of representatives from virtually all the European powers of the time, intended to forge a long term peace plan, subsequent to the Napoleonic wars. During the event, the French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, suggested a break in the negotiations, by way of a friendly cheese competition, with each country and state putting forth their finest, to be judged by all. Legend has it that Talleyrand-Périgord slyly waited until the end of the competition to bring forth Brie, after sixty some odd other cheeses had been sampled. A vote was held, and Brie de Meaux was declared, ‘Le Roi des Fromages’ the King of Cheeses.

Brie - Creamy, ethereal cheese with a delightfully bitter rind.
Brie – Creamy, ethereal cheese with a delightfully bitter rind.

Brie, like its popular cousin Camembert, is a soft-ripened cheese, (as opposed to soft, fresh cheeses, like cream, cottage, Neufchâtel, mozzarella,and ricotta). While the fresh, soft varieties are eaten right away, soft ripened spend some time gaining depth and complexity, as well as a thin rind that some find delicious and others quite literally cannot stomach – The rind is a bitter counterpoint to the creamy, buttery cheese itself – probably why there’s such a love/hate relationship with it – More on that in a bit.

Real deal AOC Brie - Look for the label
Real deal AOC Brie – Look for the label

Brie de Meaux, and Brie de Melun, which both hail from the Seine et Marne region, a Department due east of Paris, are the real McCoys, protected by the vaunted French AOC label, the Appellation d’origine Contrôlée, which means only Brie from that place may be called Brie de Meaux or Melun. That said, just plain old Brie is not a protected name, and can be made anywhere – Think of it as the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne – Both can be good, (and frankly, occasionally quite meh), but in either case, it behooves the consumer to know what it is they’re buying, and from whence it came, d’accord?

Bries are made with whole or partly skimmed cows milk, cured for a couple of days, and then placed in a cave at roughly 54° F. it’s during this aging period that the characteristic white rind forms. That rind consists of a hardened layer of cheese and some form of mold, one of the Penicillium varieties for both Brie and Camembert, plus some yeast, or a fungus such as Geotrichum Candidum. That might sound unappealing, but I assure you that you can indeed eat the rind without harm, and naturellement, the French claim it’s good for your gut. The rind is, in fact, absolutely critical to the final form of the cheese – it’s a living, breathing thing that actively works to break down the cheese, creating the creamy, (and sometimes, downright runny), texture that we love so much. Brie ages for anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks to reach maturity, during which it is lovingly turned by hand, assuring even aging. Brie de Meaux And Melun both do the full Monty at 60 days, which is why they’re the Champagne, if you will.

So, how does one chose Brie? Well, again, if you want the real deal, you need to look for Brie de Meaux, or Brie de Melun, and the accompanying AOC seal, or the words Appellation Contrôlée, on the label. Chances are what you get will be sublime and lovely, assuming you’ve bought from a scrupulous seller. Both versions are made from raw, (unpasteurized), milk. A whole round of Brie de Meaux weighs about 6 pounds, and is around 14” in diameter. Brie de Melun is smaller, at slightly over 3 pounds and roughly 11” in diameter. In general, Brie de Meaux is milder than Brie de Melun, which has a notably stronger taste and smell. The pinnacle of that trend is Brie Noir, Black Brie – It’s not Black at all, although the rind and cheese are distinctly brown, as opposed to the light creamy cheese and white rind we’re used to. Black Brie ages for up to a full year, and is much more pungent, with a dry, almost crumbly texture.

Black Brie, aged and oh so gnarly.
Black Brie, aged and oh so gnarly.

Now, all that does not mean, by any sense of the word, that Brie from other places isn’t good. Brie is made in America, Great Britain, Australia, and Brazil, that I’m aware of – There may well be more. There are herbed Brie’s, blue Brie’s, double and triple Brie’s (meaning, much higher milk fat percentage used in their making), and Brie made with milk from goats or sheep. There are also French non-AOC Bries, including Brie de Montereau, Île-de-France, Brie de Nangis, Brie de Provins, Brie fermier, Brie d’Isigny, Brie de Melun bleu, Brie petit moulé, and Brie Laitier Coulommiers, just to name a few. Again, just as you can get sparkling wine that doesn’t hail from Champagne, these alt Bries are well worth exploring.

As mentioned previously, if you buy from a reputable seller, you’re good to go, 99% of the time. Keep in mind that you’re unlikely to find, or afford for that matter, a whole wheel of Brie, so as with any other foods, let your eyes and nose and, if possible, mouth do the investigative work when choosing. Brie should have a white rind and a light, cream colored cheese, (not withstanding Brie Noir) – Don’t buy anything that has an off-color rind or flesh, or knew that smells bad. Lots of markets have expanded cheese shops these days – I mean, here in the Great Pacific Northwet, even the lowly Fred Meyer chain has a pretty damn fine cheese department, so go figure.

Store Brie in an air tight container, in the coldest section of your fridge, but better yet, plan on eating it right after you buy it – Soft ripened cheese has a short shelf life, indeed. If a stored Brie has an off-color mold on it, toss it, even if you don’t see the mold everywhere on the cheese – Trust me when I say that it’s there, and you shouldn’t eat it .

And what to do when we eat it? Many, many wonderful things. As part of a picnic lunch or dinner, Brie is delightful with good crackers, toast points rubbed with garlic, or straight with fruit – The tang of the fruit is a perfect contrapuntal note to the subtly sweet, creamy cheese – And again, the bitter rind adds a delightful third note to the chord. Apples, pears, and berries (straw, blue, black, and Marion are all lovely), figs, and apricots are great choices. Along that same vein, fruit preserves, dried fruit, and chutney are all very nice accompaniments.

If you prefer something more savory, good bacon, or pork belly is wonderful (big surprise there, huh?). Pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts are lovely, crunchy additions. Fresh mushrooms, like shiitake or morels, lightly sautéed, sun dried tomatoes, and caramelized onions shine as well. Fresh herbs, like basil, marjoram, garlic chive, rosemary, lemon thyme, or lavender are great choices, too.

Brie en croute with slivered almonds, sun dried tomato, and fresh rosemary
Brie en croute with slivered almonds, sun dried tomato, and fresh rosemary

My favorite way to incorporate these accoutrements is the venerable Brie en croute – Brie with a puff pastry or pie crust shell, baked and stuffed with whatever you like, (or, for that matter, straight up plain – If you’ve got good Brie, it’ll be plenty decadent, believe me). You can use single notes, or combine two or three for a truly lovely appetizer. Making puff pastry from scratch is truly laborious, but fortunately, you can get decent pre-made stuff almost anywhere these days, usually in the frozen food section of your local market. Here’s a few combinations to give a try to – Then branch out on your own.

Brie en Croute

1 8 Ounce wheel Brie
1 Sheet prepared Puff Pastry
1 Egg

If you’re adding goodies:
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

For Toppings:
3 Tablespoons slivered Almonds
2 Tablespoons dry Sun-dried Tomatoes
1-2” spring fresh Rosemary

Or
2 Tablespoons chopped Hazelnuts
2 Tablespoons dried Cranberries
2 teaspoons Honey

Or
2 Tablespoons Bacon Lardons
2 Tablespoons chopped dried Apricots
1” – 2” spring fresh Lemon Thyme

Thoroughly thaw frozen puff pastry sheet – Don’t screw with it in any way, shape, or form until it’s completely thawed, or you’ll get thin sections at the folds, and you don’t want that.

If you’re doing bacon lardons, sauté those over medium heat until they’re crisp and much of the fat has been rendered. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.

If you’re using nuts, sauté them in melted butter over medium heat until they begin to turn golden brown, then onto clean paper towels to drain off the excess fat.

For the dried fruit or tomatoes, sauté them after the nuts are done, in the remaining butter. Dry on a clean paper towel and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in the center position.

NOTE: For all these options, you really don’t need to add much fat, so do dry them off prior to adding them to the Brie.

Unwrap the Brie and inspect to make sure all is well. If you’re squeamish, you may gently cut away the rind, but I strongly advise you to buck up and not do so.

Brie en croute, ready to wrap, with toppings added
Brie en croute, ready to wrap, with toppings added

Unfold the thawed puff pastry and drape that over a sauté pan, baking dish, etc, large enough to hold the wrapped Brie with some space to spare.

Add goodies to the top of the Brie.

Crack egg into a small mixing bowl and whisk to an even consistency.

brie en croute, wrapped, egg washed, and ready to bake
brie en croute, wrapped, egg washed, and ready to bake

Fold one corner of the pastry over the top of the Brie. Brush the outside of that corner with the egg wash, then brush egg on the bottom (facing) side of the next adjacent corner, and fold that onto the first. Continue with that process until you’ve got a nice, snugly wrapped parcel.

Evenly coat the outside of the puff pastry with the remaining egg wash.

Slide the Brie into the oven and bake, undisturbed for 30 minutes.

Remove the Brie from the oven and set aside to cool for 15 minutes.

Brie en croute
Brie en croute

Serve with crackers, toast points, etc, and be ready to totally ruin your dinner in so doing.