Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov?

It’s 40° F this morning, with a 17 knot wind out of the northeast, putting the wind chill at about 34° F. And it’s rained 3/4″ in the last two days, with more on the way. Can you say, Comfort Food? Sure, I knew ya could… Days like this call for something that conjures childhood memories of coming in from a frigid Massachusetts winter, to a house redolent with the rich smells of good things to eat. Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov, is what I’ve got in mind, and I’m willing to bet that merely reading those words has already gone to work on you, too. I’m talking authentic beef stroganoff here, which raises an important question – What exactly is authentic, in this regard? Let’s find out.

Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov
Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov

Invariably, if you’re a student of food history at all, you’ve heard some version of the origin story for beef stroganoff. Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov was the Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia under Czar Alexander III, in the early 19th century, and later the Governor-General of Novorossiysk and Bessarabia. He was also the president of the historical society, a famous and wealthy man, and a bit of a gourmand. The rest of the story goes, in essence, that he collaborated with his French Chef to invent Beef Stroganov, which took Russia by storm, winning awards throughout the country, and is still with us today. While the modern dish is surely named Stroganoff, the origin story is kinda cloudy when you get down to brass tacks. And by the way, there are some serious issues with most modern recipes – More on that shortly.

Here are a few facts – first, the dish attributed to the Stroganov family is an age old Russian favorite – sautéed beef in sour cream sauce. Secondly, the upper crust during Czarist times loved all things French – Many spoke French at home and sent their kids to French schools, and French cuisine was considered especially à la mode. Third, many Russian cooks were French trained, and families who could afford to hire a genuine French Chef would do so in a heartbeat.

There is also evidence to support the belief that at least one Stroganov Count had a French Chef, though I’ve yet to read anything definitive attributed to which one was the one. While most popular versions tap Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov as the creator, there are rival claims for Counts Pavel Alexandrovich and Sergei Grigorievich as well. The first published recipe that specifically called the dish Beef Stroganov I’m aware of appeared in a cookbook written by Elena Molokovhets in 1861, (A Gift For Young Housewives). It’s also true that, thirty years later, in Saint Petersburg, a French Chef named Charles Briere was awarded a blue ribbon for a dish he called Beef Stroganov. But at that point, Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov had been dead for almost 75 years, and the youngest candidate, Sergei, had died in 1882. Nothing I read definitively tied Briere to the Stroganovs either – Clear as mud, right?

In any case, it’s certainly plausible that a French Chef might tweak either a rustic Russian favorite, (or for that matter, a French fricassee de boeuf), making it more suitable for refined Russian palates. And it’s still most likely, for my mind, that the dish came to fame with Count Alexander, who reportedly was a serious party hound. Certainly the French-Russian twist is evident in the truest version of the dish – sautéing beef, and then whipping up a pan sauce flavored with mustard is absolutely French, while beef in sour cream defines Russian fare to a T.

When the Communist Revolution engulfed Russia and buried the last of the Czars, many who were able fled their home country. Naturally, they took their favorite dishes with them. Beef Stroganov migrated first to China, where Shanghai was known as The Paris of the East – There is where it likely was first pared with rice, and where soy or fish sauce of some kind would have been introduced as well. The dish also worked its way through what would become the soviet block countries, and eventually to America – There, in New York City in 1927, the Russian Tea Room opened, with Beef Stroganoff on the menu. It was around this time and through these gyrations and upheavals that the name apparently changed from Stroganov to Stroganoff.

Enough of the history – Onward to the stuff commonly associated with beef Stroganov that, frankly, shouldn’t be – Please note, I’m not saying you can’t do these things – I’m merely pointing out that, if authentic is important, this stuff won’t be in the mix. Pretty much the entire no-no list came from American ‘improvements’ to the dish.

Mushrooms – Russian purists say unequivocally that mushrooms in beef stroganoff is inauthentic. You can do it if you dig it, but try it at least once without. Mushrooms are potent – They add a number of elements of taste and texture that can easily overwhelm what should be a delicate balance of flavors. So if you do add them, make them good ones, and pay attention to proportion – half to a loose full cup is plenty – And for the record? Yeah, I add them – Shiitakes from our tribe in Minnesota, along with a half cup of steeping liquid.

Served on Noodles – Never done in Russia. Served over mashed or roasted potatoes, or accompanied by fried potatoes are the ways it was done, and later, over rice as well. Don’t get me wrong, freshly made egg noodles are great with Stroganoff, but you owe it to yourself to try the more authentic accompaniments – And doing so gives you a built in excuse to make several batches…

Adding canned cream of mushroom soup. Please, just don’t, ever. That stuff is just so wrong, I shouldn’t need to elaborate further. I don’t care if your mom and aunt Sally used it – Just don’t.

Adding ketchup/catsup. While I found, (and endorse), the use of tomato paste and honey in the seasoning mix, ketchup ain’t the way to get there. The balance is way off, and frankly, even good store bought ketchup doesn’t taste much like tomatoes. The idea is to get a little sweet note and a little msg umami feel into the recipe, and there’s much better, more balanced ways to do that, as you’ll see shortly.

For great Stroganov, you need great beef
For great Stroganov, you need great beef

Ground beef, or cheap stew cuts. Remember what I said last week about choosing beef? You certainly can make Stroganoff with these cuts and grinds, but to do it right, what you need is a nice quality, lean cut. Top sirloin, eye of the round, tenderloin will all do a great job. Stroganoff, done right, is fork tender, almost melt in your mouth, and it doesn’t require long stewing or braising time, so a good quality cut is mission critical to achieving that end. Again, you can use that other stuff in a pinch, but if you want to make the version fit for a Count, you need pretty good beef.

What you certainly can do is use a protein other than beef. While some hard cores claim only kow is korrect, plenty of genuine Russian history and recipes I chased down indicated that pork, lamb, and chicken all were used from time to time in the old country, and you can too. And for that matter, tofu sautéed to a nice crispy crust, with a soft, cream interior, is also pretty spectacular, if I do say so myself.

This recipe is an amalgam of several authentic versions. Those recipes varied from absolutely simple to quite complex. I took the common ground from all of them, as well as a couple of my favorite tweaks from the dish’s travels, to arrive where I did. I encourage you to dig in deeper and come up with one of your own – But try mine first. That said, whatever version you make, pay attention to the technique I’m showing here. I guarantee you it’ll make the most incredible Stroganov you’ve ever tasted, or your money back!

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

1 Pound Beef Sirloin or Tenderloin
1 small Sweet Onion
1 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup Beef Stock
1 Tablespoon Wondra Flour
1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil (Olive Oil is fine)
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
2 teaspoons Honey
1 teaspoon Soy Sauce
2 drops Fish Sauce
Sea Salt
Ground Pepper

Trim all fat and connective tissue from beef, and reserve that stuff.

Trimmed fat and connective tissue
Trimmed fat and connective tissue

In a cast iron skillet over low heat, add a pinch of salt and all the trimmed fat, etc. cook on low, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered out of the trimmings, about 15 minutes.

Rendering fat from beef trimmings
Rendering fat from beef trimmings

Peel, trim, and slice onion into thin 1/8″ thick rings, then cut those into quarters.

Sweat the onions in rendered beef fat, with a little salt and pepper
Sweat the onions in rendered beef fat, with a little salt and pepper

Remove the trimmings from the skillet, and bring heat up to medium. If your beef trimmings didn’t render enough fat to coat the pan, add a little oil.

Add onions to the skillet, stir to coat with the rendered fat, and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Reduce heat to medium low and sweat the onions – This is done with the heat initially fairly high, then reduced – Its a quick process, 2 or 3 minutes, with steady stirring. The onions will look glossy and wet, but do not brown them.

If you've made and frozen Demi glacé, this is a perfect dish to add it to.
If you’ve made and frozen Demi glacé, this is a perfect dish to add it to.

Add the beef stock and butter to the skillet and stir, add another pinch of salt and a twist or two of Pepper. If you’ve been good and made demi glacé, pull a cube or two from the freezer and add it to the pan as well. Stir to incorporate, and reduce heat to low.

Onions, beef stock, butter, and Demi glacé
Onions, beef stock, butter, and Demi glacé

With a meat hammer, pound the trimmed beef lightly to tenderize. If you have a decent meat hammer, then the trick is to let the tool’s weight do the work – Don’t add muscle to the pounding, just guide the tool – You want your beef to end up about 1/2″ thick.

Beef pounded to roughly 1/2" thick
Beef pounded to roughly 1/2″ thick

Cut the beef into strips about 1 1/2″ long and 1/2″ thick. Transfer to a non-reactive bowl.

Check your onions and stock. Give them a stir, and keep the heat low enough that they do not simmer.

The rocket fuel for great Stroganov
The rocket fuel for great Stroganov

Add flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, honey, and fish sauce to the beef and mix by hand until thoroughly and evenly coated.

Beef, seasoned with flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, and fish sauce.
Beef, seasoned with flour, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce, and fish sauce.

Transfer onions and stock to a mixing bowl.

Increase heat to medium high and add a tablespoon of avocado oil to the skillet. When the pan is nice and hot, add the beef and sauté quickly, turning constantly. Cook for about 2 minutes until the beef is lightly browned.

Turn the heat under the skillet off, and add the onions and stock to the beef. Stir to incorporate. Cover the pan and allow the dish to sit for at least 30 minutes, and an hour is better yet.

Beef Stroganov should be luxurious, even before adding sour cream
Beef Stroganov should be luxurious, even before adding sour cream

When you’re about ready to eat, uncover the skillet and turn the heat to medium low. Allow the Stroganov to heat through, stirring occasionally. Do not allow the dish to boil or simmer vigorously – Nice and easy does it on the reheat. This will take about 15 minutes to heat the dish through.

When your Stroganov has 5 minutes of reheating left, add the sour cream, taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired. Stir gently to incorporate, and every minute or so thereafter – Again, do not allow the dish to boil, or you’ll break the delicate sauce.

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique
Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

Serve over rice, or mashed potatoes, with a salad or green vegetable. Garnish with parsley, cilantro, or basil, and chopped tomato if you like.

Na Zdorovie!

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Slow Cookers

The slow food movement took hold in Italy, back in 1989, and it’s been chugging along ever since. The initial focus was, “food that’s good for us, good for our environment and good for the people who grow, pick and prepare it. In other words, food that is good, clean and fair,” all inarguably good stuff. The movement has branched out somewhat in the intervening twenty seven years, and as such, it was inevitable that cookware would also become a part of the deal, and indeed it has – In recent years, what we cook in and how we cook it has garnered every bit as much attention as the food itself.

In the late ’90’s, cookware began one of its greatest evolutions to date. Home cooks found themselves able to buy stuff far superior to the schlock that had ruled the roost previously. One of the very early deal makers in this regard was All Clad‘s Emerilware, a full 11 piece set of which M and It bought in 2002 for less than what a single top of the line All Clad stock pot was going for. Why so cheap? Well, made in China rather than the U.S., frankly, and some minor metallurgical tweaks. That said, they’re still multi-layer steel, aluminum and copper bottoms bonded to stainless bodies – Fourteen years later, they show obvious signs of heavy use, but they’re in perfect working order with years left on them.

Then, as the slow food movement penetrated other parts of the world, this trend toward high-end cookware took an interesting turn as well – a one hundred and eighty degree U turn, to be exact. Suddenly, cast iron was back in vogue, both raw, from venerable makers like Lodge, (who’ve been casting cookware since 1896), and in the considerably pricier enameled iteration, and the most famous version thereof, made by French manufacturer Le Creuset – They’ve been around since 1925, and are still going strong. The fact is, you can’t go wrong with cast iron – The only crime you can commit in this regard is to not have any in your kitchen. For my mind, a cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven are not optional, and that’s sage advice, if I do say so myself.

Straw Box - The original slow cooker.
Straw Box – The original slow cooker.

Then the venerable crock pot got a make over, and the electric slow cooker caught fire as well. While the name brand crock pot is a child of the 1970s, the roots of the cooking method go back way further yet, to what was, and is still called a straw box. As you can see from the picture, this is nothing more than some form of box big enough to fit a slow cooker like a Dutch oven, with room enough to allow a nice, thick layer of straw to be piled all around the cooker. Foods heated in the Dutch oven are stuffed into the straw box and left alone for the day – The latent heat of the food in the well insulated box finishes the cooking in a nice, slow manner – Its great for cassoulets and such.

The Römertopf - Almost too pretty to cook in.
The Römertopf – Almost too pretty to cook in.

And lately, the clay cooker has made a resurgence as well, with venerable makers like Römertopf from Germany offering a wide range of fired clay cookware that’s not only fun to use, but quite lovely, (When I climbed aboard the clay cooker train for the writing of this piece, M noted that “it’s too pretty to cook in,” and it darn near is!) Cooking in clay might just signify the farthest back that we can practically go in pursuit of the good old days – It’s been done for thousands of years, and by cultures from literally all around the globe.

Thus we come to the Big Question at hand – How much, if any of this stuff do you actually need?

Let me answer that with a story. A friend of mine used to own a music store. I was there one day buying an amplifier, and he mentioned that he had some really nice Fender Stratocasters that I, “needed to take a look at.”
As we admired the guitars, I noted, “Well, they’re pretty, but I already got two Strats and a Tele – I don’t really need another one.” He looked at me as if I was the dumbest human he’d ever layer eyes on, sneered slightly and retorted, “What the hell does ‘need’ have to do with another Strat?!” And there you have it, in a nutshell.

How many knives do you really need? Two or three really will do. How many pots and pans? Well, that’s more complicated, and it depends on how much cooking you do and want to do – Realistically, I think anything less than a couple of sauce pans, a couple of sauté pans, and at least one big stock pot just won’t cut the mustard. How many and what kind of slow cooker you need is also complicated. If you have a good, cast iron Dutch oven, truth be told you probably don’t need anything else, but you may want more, and rightly so.

That single Dutch oven is versatile as all get out. From stove top, to oven, to camp fire, it can and will do it all, and a good quality oven will be something that you pass on to your kids and their kids after them – There’s much to be said for those qualities, and that’s why I’ll stand by the assertion above – If you only have one, I’d choose a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven and be most content, indeed.

What then, about enameled cast iron versus plain? My answer will be blasphemous to some, but I’ll stick by it – I’ve owned more than one piece of Le Creuset, and two Lodge Dutch ovens. I don’t own any Le Creuset currently, because all of the pieces we have went through the process of enamel chipping from the bottom, and were eventually retired – With regret, I’ll add, because Le Creuset is beautiful stuff. Now, let me interject that, were you to buy Le Creuset stuff new, you’ll find that it comes with a limited lifetime warranty, and while there are caveats and requirements, I know more than a few folks who have either gotten a brand new replacement for free, or a significant discount on same – In other words, Le Creuset not only makes a kick ass pot, they’re still a most honorable company.

Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips...
Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips…

That said, the enamel is pretty, and will cut down on some preventive maintenance on your part, but you’ll pay for those premiums – Le Creuset is fabulously expensive, just like those top end All Clad stock pots – A lodge Dutch oven like ours will set you back around $40, and their enameled version will run you about $60 – That same size of Le Creuset costs $300 – Get the picture? Me, I’m OK with the maintenance – It’s why I have my knives made with high carbon blades instead of stainless – It’s about feel, and performance, and frankly, I’m OK with maintaining my stuff – That’s how I know how it’s doing in general. Oh, and for the record, I still own my Lodge Dutch oven, and the second one was gifted to my Sis, who was without and therefore in need.

And electric slow cookers, what about ’em? Well, the need factor is kinda like those Strats… Slow cookers are handy as all get out, and they’ve come a long way. Programmability, multiple cooking temps and profiles, and much higher quality cooking vessels and insulating materials have made these toys, errr – tools, a very attractive option. If you’re of a mind to make a soup or stew, cassoulet or roast, and want it to go all day low and slow, you’ll spend less energy doing so, and likely be much safer in using a slow cooker, as opposed to leaving an unattended oven or range in all day. Our Frigidaire Professional series 7 quart cooker cost about $60, and I highly recommend it.

The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker
The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker

And what about those clay cookers? While most of the world has been cooking in clay for millennia, many people in this country got their introduction back in the ’70s, when a British firm called Habitat introduced The Chicken Brick to America. On sale in Britain since 1964, the brick is a vaguely chicken shaped, unglazed terra-cotta cooker made in England by Weston Mills Pottery. The brick worked, and worked well, but it was kinda gimmicky, so a lot of folks got one as a wedding or Christmas gift, and then never actually used the silly thing. All that aside, the recent resurgence in interest regarding cooking in clay has spurred a revival – While Habitat discontinued sales of the Chicken Brick back in 2008, they’ve recently come to their senses and are again offering this iconic cooker.

The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta
The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta

While the brick as made of unglazed terra-cotta, the stuff offered by Römertopf and a few other German makers is glazed clay. In either iteration, there are some things you must and must not do when cooking in these vessels, and that frankly is what caused a whole bunch of folks to never even try to use that wedding gift. Clay cookers cook in large part by steam heat, and that means you need to soak the whole cooker in water for 15 to 20 minutes before you load food into it.

Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.
Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.

Next, it’s best not to load cold foods into a clay cooker, so you’ll also have to get your bird or roast or whatever out of the fridge for long enough to allow it to get fairly close to room temperature. And clay cookers don’t do well in preheated ovens – That can lead to cracks, and cracks are bad – So you need to load that bird into that cooker and into a cold oven. This means that you actually will cook at a higher temperature than you normally roast at – With our Römertopf, we cook chicken at 450° F for about an hour, whereas regular roasting gets done at 350° F or thereabouts. Next caveat – You can’t take a clay cookers out of a hot oven and set it directly on a cold countertop – Doing so risks cracks, and again, they’re bad… Finally, you can’t clean a clay cookers with soap, and for the same reasons, (its porous, yeah?), you don’t really want to cook fish in one unless you’re not going to cook anything but fish in thereafter, because it’s got a memory like an elephant.

The Römertopf cooker - Made from glazed clay
The Römertopf cooker – Made from glazed clay

Right about now, a fair chunk of you are thinking, “OK, Eben – What you’ve just done is convinced me that this clay cookers thing is a major pain in the ass, so why in hell would I put myself through all that just to cook a damn chicken?!

The answer is that the chicken you cook in that pain in the ass clay cooker will be the juiciest, tenderest, moistest chicken you’ve ever cooked. M said so, the very first time I used the Römertopf, and she was right. A clay cooker becomes a small, very efficient, very moist cooking environment, and without any other adjuncts whatsoever, it passes that moisture on to what you’re cooking. Römertopf makes cookers from quite small to large enough for a full sized turkey – we bought a medium size, which has a stated size of slightly over 3 quarts, and cost fifty bucks – Not cheap, but as you can see, this is a well made and truly beautiful thing – Almost too pretty to cook in, as M noted. What it fits is pretty much the fattest local chicken you can find, but not much else – I quickly found that our cooker truly wouldn’t hold anything else, which initially made me nervous, because I come from the mire poix in the bottom of a Dutch oven with some chicken stock school of roasting. What I found out is exactly what all the makers of clay cookers tell you – You don’t need anything in that cooker to make an incredible, notable chicken – The cooker will do the magic – And indeed, it does. I stuffed that bird with apple, fennel, onion, and some fresh herbs. Cooked it at 450° F for an hour, then popped the top off for about 10 minutes to let the bird brown. Pulled it out, put it in a towel on the counter top, gave it a 10 minute rest, and dug in.

Clay cooked chicken - 'nuff said.
Clay cooked chicken – ’nuff said.

It was, as noted, an incredible chicken, but let’s face it – I bought this cooker to write this post, and as good as that chicken was, it could have been a fluke, so I did the scientific thing – I bought another chicken a week later, did all the proper prep, but this time, I did nothing other than to throw that bird into the Römertopf with a tiny bit of olive oil rubbed on the skin, followed by our signature seasoned salt blend and fresh ground pepper – Didn’t stuff it, didn’t tie it, nothin’ – Just cooked the bugger, and…

Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!
Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!

It was the best damn chicken I ever made, hands down, bar none, no bullshit.

So, now – What do you need?

PLEASE NOTE!

Have now had quite a few of you ask if I was biased/bought for the purposes of this piece. Those who’ve asked are quite new here, so it’s a fair question. Here’s our answer –

We have never accepted any ingredient or article for free or any kind of reduced price in exchange for a favorable review, and we never will.

We have far more than enough followers and readers to warrant the ability to run ads on this blog, and to receive deals such as I just described – Again, we’ve never done any of that, and never will.

This is a completely independent blog, and everything you see here is bought by us at full retail price from the same places you can get yours. We’re about helping folks discover new things, becoming more food independent, and making from scratch everything that you can, period.

I love Hawaiian pizza – and maybe you should too

Back in June, 2017, Sotirios ‘Sam’ Panopoulos passed away in London, Ontario, Canada. While you’ve likely never heard of Sam, you know him well through his iconic dish, the Hawaiian Pizza – That creation, loved or reviled, came from the mind of a 28 year old Greek immigrant to Canada. I’m here to declare, formally, that I love Hawaiian pizza – and maybe you should too.

Sam Panopoulos, The Man
Sam Panopoulos, The Man

Sam and a couple of brothers owned the Satellite restaurant in Chatham, Ontario, due east across Lake Saint Clair from Detroit. It was the early 60’s, so a place called the Satellite was very fashion forward, indeed. They served a mishmash of stuff, from burgers to Chinese food made by a Chinese chef. He later noted that it was the Chinese penchant for blending elements of the five major tastes in a dish that got him thinking about inventing a pizza – He’d enjoyed eating that in Italy and the US, and thought he might be able to come up with something original. He was right.

Truth? A lot of chain Hawaiian pizza sucks.
Truth? A lot of chain Hawaiian pizza sucks.

Today’s version of the Hawaiian pizza is not what Sam started with. His shining contribution was the pineapple – Canned Dole pineapple, which begat the Hawaiian thing. He later recalled that, in Canada at that time, “People only put on mushroom, bacon and pepperoni, that’s all. I had pineapple in the restaurant and I put some on, and I shared with some customers and they liked it. And we started serving it that way. For a long time, we were the only ones serving it.”

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Get the mix right, and things can be delightful. What Sam had done was add a tacitly sweet note to what was, as he noted, a pretty heavy mix. Yet pineapple did more than that – It added acid, which cut the fatty mix of cheese and meat, and offered a minor sour note as well. It may seem wrong, but I think it was brilliant, and the explosion of that now legendary combo on the world of pizza would seem to support that.

Now, the Hawaiian is almost always tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, and pineapple. It is surprising to me that seemingly equal faction either love the combination or loath it. The President of Iceland recently denounced it, (albeit tongue in cheek), prompting Canadian PM Trudeau to quip, “I have a pineapple. I have a pizza. And I stand behind this delicious Southwestern Ontario creation.” Many chefs have vilified the thing, from Gordon Ramsay To Tony Bourdain, sometimes prompting outraged defenses in response from yet other chefs. Somewhere in print, the haters actually invoked Godwin’s Law, and declared that those who like Hawaiian pizza are ‘worse than hitler.’

What is it about pineapple on pizza that’s so polarizing? Purists cite Neapolitan roots and flatly state that pineapple has no place there – I imagine these folks have kittens over quite a few other ingredients as well. Sweet notes in a pizza certainly aren’t taboo – Hell, that’s what tomatoes do, for cryin’ out loud – and pineapple has been eaten in Italy for a long, long time. In the states, it’s a top ten fruit, so it’s not broadly disliked here either. Google the first sentence of this paragraph and you get a whole raft of discussions and levels of intensity – It’s interesting, but all that stuff doesn’t necessarily answer the question.

The whole thing really seems to boil down to two arguments – either that pineapple just doesn’t belong on pizza, or that it just doesn’t taste good – To both, I call bullshit. If you like pineapple, and want to use it, do so. If you’re running a pizzeria that swears eternal fealty to all the arcane rules of the game, then by all means, don’t. If you don’t like the taste, no matter what, then don’t eat it – it’s that simple. But if you’re cooking at home, and you want to, then to paraphrase Alton Brown, by God, have pineapple. 

As for the taste thing, fact is, this is often enough true. A poorly made pizza isn’t likely to taste good at all – but that’s easily remedied. Let’s face it, a notable chunk of commercial pizza from big name chains and the stuff at the grocery store is crap – They’re not generally made with love and care, and you get what you pay for. Change that, and it’s delicious.

Great Hawaiian pizza is all about balance of flavors
Great Hawaiian pizza is all about balance of flavors

Tony Bourdain infamously had nothing good to say about Hawaiian pizza, (most of it highly profane, I might add). Yet he was forced to swallow his smartass comments when, in Rome, he ran into Gabriele Bonci of Pizzarium. Chef Bonci does pizza right – great dough, top notch ingredients, just a few things combined on each slice. Bourdain made the Hawaiian crack, and Bonci immediately said ‘No, is good,’ and made some. They both agreed it was good, but not great. Then Bonci disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a sauté of onion and hot peppers added, and bingo – Even Tony had to admit it rocked.

Homemade sauce makes the pizza
Homemade sauce makes the pizza

That harkens all the way back to what Sam Panopoulos said about first offering pineapple on pizza – It was added to whatever you liked. It’s all about balance, and what Sam gleaned from Chinese food was a well balanced thing. Love it or hate it, the fact that it flourishes decades after its inception says it’s true.

The secret to great Hawaiian pizza? Chiles!
The secret to great Hawaiian pizza? Chiles!

So, if you’re not from the hater camp, try it done right. Fresh pineapple is always best, but truth? Canned will work fine if you blend and cook it well. You don’t need to use fancy ham, but you sure can if you want, or sub bacon, or whatever porky deliciousness you prefer. Make or buy great dough, sauce, and use as much fresh stuff as you’ve got for toppings. What you see in the images herein was made with fresh dough, tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeños, and basil out of our garden, and locally made smoked scamorza cheese. Use different chiles if you like, red onion, maybe a few capers for a bitter note – experiment, have fun, and surrender to Sam.

Great homemade Hawaiian pizza
Great homemade Hawaiian pizza

One interesting side note – Sam died one year to the day before Bourdain took his own life in France.

It’s Time to Riff on Gazpacho

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

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

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

Gazpacho Andaluz - The one you’re probably thinking of

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

Gazpacho Verde - All about New World flavors

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

Some Gazpacho variants are more like Pico de Gallo than soup

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

Gazpacho Blanco - Ancient and sublime

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

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

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

4-5 ripe Tomatoes.

1 Cucumber.

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

1-3 cloves fresh Garlic.

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

1/3 cup extra virgin Olive Oil.

2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar.

1 Cup Vegetable Stock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gazpacho Verde

4 large Tomatillos

4 Green Onions (Scallions)

1 Green Bell Pepper

1 English Hothouse Cucumber

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

2 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Cup Greek Yogurt

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/4 Cup Veggie Stock

1/4 Cup Cider Vinegar

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

1 fresh Lime

Fine ground Kosher Salt 

Freshly ground Pepper

Ground Piment d’Espelette chile 

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

Husk, stem, and quarter tomatillos.

Stem, seed and rough chop pepper and chiles.

smash, peel, trim, and mince garlic.

Trim and rough chop green onions.

Slice cuke in half, deseed, then rough chop.

Zest and juice lime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gazpacho Blanco

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

1 Cup cold Water

1/4 Cup extra Virgin Olive Oil

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

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

1 clove fresh Garlic

1-2 teaspoons Sherry Vinegar

Fine ground kosher salt

Seedless Green Grapes to garnish

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

Pour almonds into a single mesh strainer.

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

Peel, trim, smash and mince garlic.

Peel, core, and chop apple.

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

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

Pile the mix until thoroughly blended and smooth.

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

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

Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

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

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

A Paean to the Galette

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

Berry Galette

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

Breton Galette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vodka Butter Pie Crust

2 1/2 Cups Pastry flour

8 Ounces Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)

1/4 Cup Ice Cold Vodka

1/4 Cup Ice Cold Water

1 teaspoon Salt

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

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

Sift flour and salt into a large mixing bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Lard or Shortening Pie Crust

2 1/2 Cups Pastry flour

1 Cup Leaf Lard

5+ Tablespoons Water

1 teaspoon Salt

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

Sift flour and salt in to a large mixing bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berry Galette

Berry Galette

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

1 Pound fresh Berries

1/4 Cup local Honey (or Agave nectar)

2 Tablespoons Arrowroot

1 small Lemon

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

1 Egg

1 Tablespoon Turbinado Sugar

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

Pinch Salt

Zest lemon and squeeze 1 tablespoon of juice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berry Galettes

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

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

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

Sprinkle the lemon zest over the berries.

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

Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

Berry Galettes

Devour.

Savory Galette

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

Roasted Potato & Cheddar Galette

2 Medium Yellow Potatoes

1/2 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese

2 large Eggs

3-4 sprigs fresh Cilantro

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

Salt

Fresh ground Pepper

 

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

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

Cut potatoes into roughly 1/4” thick disks.

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

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

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

Chifonade cut cilantro.

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

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

Grate cheddar.

Line a baking pan with parchment.

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

Brush egg wash onto the exposed side of the dough.

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

Brush the spuds generously with the egg wash.

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

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

Brush egg was onto the second layer.

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

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

Brush the egg wash onto all the exposed dough.

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

Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

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

Mexican Chorizo

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

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

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

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

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

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

House made chorizo

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

Chorizo Norteño - Probably what you’ve tried

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

Fresh chorizo seco
Fresh chorizo seco

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

Chorizo Verde - Not just another pretty face

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

Loganiza - OK, if you like offal...

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

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

Chorizo Obispo - It’s not brains...

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

Moronga - Mexican Blood Sausage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chorizo de Urban

NOTES – 

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

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

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

6 ounces ground Pork Fat

1 Cup Cider Vinegar

2-4 Tablespoons Chipotle Chile flake

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

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

4-6 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon Salt

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

4 whole Cloves

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

1/2 teaspoon Coriander Seed

1/2 teaspoon Cumin 

1/2 teaspoon Allspice 

1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

2 whole Bay Leaves (I like Turkish)

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

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

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

Peel and trim garlic cloves, and cut into quarters.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Urban Chorizo Verde

NOTES – 

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

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

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

6 Ounces ground Pork Fat

1/2 Pound fresh Tomatillos

1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar

2 fresh Poblano Chiles

2-4 fresh Serrano Chiles

2 Tablespoons Chipotle Chile flake

1 Tablespoon ground Guajillo Chile

1 Bunch fresh Cilantro (about 3 ounces)

3 fat cloves fresh Garlic

2 teaspoons Coriander Seed (whole or ground)

2 teaspoons Salt

1 teaspoon Cumin Seed (whole or ground)

1 teaspoon fresh ground black Pepper

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

Remove husks from tomatillos and slice in half.

Peel and trim garlic, leave cloves whole.

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

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

Remove from oven and let cool enough to handle.

Stem and skin roasted chiles.

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

Mince a lightly packed cup of cilantro.

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

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

Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.

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

To Stuff Fresh Sausage into Casings – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy.

Sauce Grenobloise is a delight!

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

Gratin dauphinois, Grenoble’s signature dish

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

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

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

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

potatoes with garlic, celery leaf, and Korean chile flake

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

Pan seared chicken, finished in the oven

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

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

 

Sauce Grenobloise

1/4 Cup fresh unsalted Butter

1 small fresh Lemon

2 Tablespoons Nonpareil Capers

2 Tablespoons fresh Parsley

1/2 Cup Croutons

If you don’t have croutons handy – 

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

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

Cut bread into roughly 1/2” squares.

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

Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

For the Sauce – 

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

Mince the parsley.

Drain the capers.

Mise en place for sauce grenobloise

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

Melting the butter for sauce grenobloise

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

The butter will likely foam when you add lemon

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

Sauce Grenobloise

Remove sauce from heat.

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

Sauce Grenobloise deployed

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

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

Charro Beans, Here We Come.

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

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

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

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

Charros are best made with high quality, dry beans

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

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

Chiles are a must in charro beans

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

Plum tomatoes are the go to for charro beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Charro Beans de UrbanMonique

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

Bean Stock to cover

Chicken or Veggie Stock to top off

6 strips smoky, Pepper Bacon

2 medium Sweet Onions

4 fresh Roma Tomatoes

2 fat cloves Garlic

2-4 Chiles (We like jalapeño or serrano)

1 small Lemon

6-8 stalks fresh Cilantro

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

Salt and freshly ground Pepper to taste

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cut onion, tomatoes, and chiles in half.

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

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

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

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

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

Dice all the roasted veggies, and mince the garlic.

Rough chop cilantro.

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

Add roasted veggies and stir to incorporate.

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

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

Add oregano, and stir to incorporate.

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

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

Charro beans in all their glory

Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.

Buen provecho!

Sambal – Indonesian Rocket Fuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES: 

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

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

 

Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

2 Cups Dark Soy Sauce

1 Cup Palm Sugar (or Brown Sugar)

1/4 Cup Water

1/2” chunk fresh Ginger Root

1/4 Star Anise Pod

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

1 fat clove fresh Garlic 

Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.

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

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

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

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

Remove pan from heat and allow to cool.

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

Store refrigerated for up to 10 days.

Sambal Kecap Pedis - Fiery and sweet

Sambal Kecap Pedas – Spicy Sweet

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

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

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

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

24-48 Birds Eye Chiles

4-6 Tablespoons Kecap Manis

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

Reconstituted Birds Eye chiles - Small But mighty

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

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

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

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

Commercial Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek 

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

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

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1 stalk Lemongrass

1” fresh Ginger Root

1 small Lime

1/4 Cup Cider Vinegar 

1 teaspoon Palm Sugar, (or brown)

Pinch Salt

Stem chiles and rough chop.

Peel, trim and mince garlic and ginger.

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

Zest lime and set fruit aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to a clean glass jar with an airtight lid.

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

Roasted Sambal Lado Mudo

Roasted Sambal Lado Mudo

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

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

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

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

4-5 large Tomatillos

1 small Lime

1 fat clove fresh Garlic

8-12 drops Red Boat Fish Sauce

Pinch of Salt

Pinch of Sugar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pulse until you have a nice, chunky consistency. 

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

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

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

Sambal Lado Mudo - Green heat

Asinan – Sweet And Sour Cucumber Salad

Goes great with a Indonesian inspired meal.

For the Salad

1 large, fresh Cucumber

1 small sweet Onion

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

5-6 stalks Cilantro

For the Dressing

4 Tablespoons Lime Juice

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger

1/2 teaspoon Granulated Garlic

1/2 teaspoon Hot Chile Oil

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

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

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

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

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