Giardiniera – The King of Pickled Veggies

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giardiniera Relish

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

For the base mix

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

For the final mix

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

Rinse all produce thoroughly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giardiniera, bite size
Giardiniera, bite size

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

Building Great Salads

When the garden churns into production mode, I get a serious salad Jones on a regular basis. There’s something about watering becoming an exercise in dinner recon and going outside to prep for dinner that seems very right to me. This seems like a good time to talk about building great salads, and what to dress them with.

Even homegrown greens gotta be cleaned

When fresh veggies are abundant, they deserve some extra care, especially lettuces. If you’ve ever been served a salad that really popped for you, it’s a guarantee that the level of prep and presentation went well beyond what usually happens at home, even if things looked really simple. Recreating that at home is not difficult, and well worth the effort.

Homegrown bounty

The first thing that really needs to get done is a gentle but thorough washing of anything and everything you’ve harvested. We don’t use any chemicals on our garden, but regardless, there’s dirt and maybe a critter or two that needs to be found and removed. This is also the time to inspect and remove any wilted or damaged parts. Have a big bowl of icy cold water ready beside your station, and drop stuff into it as you’re done with it. Even freshly picked greens start to lose water and crispness quite quickly when it’s hot out – The cold water will keep them in top form. After everything has had a good soak, change the water and let them have a second cold bath. These steps should be done right before assembly and service of the salad.

Enfrijoladas Toppings - Whatever ya got.

 

As you prep additional goodies for the salad, place them into sealable airtight containers, (preferably glass). A lot of us at home make too much, and mix it all together in one big ol’ bowl – Ask yourself how often you have that green salad again, until it’s gone? The jumbled mix invites things to go bad, and other ingredients to get thrown out – Like when your tomatoes or cukes go first, but they’re mixed with everything else, and… With everything prepped, offered, and stored individually, folks can build their own mix, and leftovers lend themselves readily to new dishes.

Specialized lettuce containers are absolutely worth it

Invest in a container or two specifically designed for storage of lettuce and veggies. We have two that both have a drain tile over the bottom, snug fitting kids, and ventilation options. These things genuinely will store lettuce and veggies for longer and better than any other option we’ve tried – It’s actually pretty amazing – Lettuce and cabbage stays crisp and other stuff, from carrots and celery to chiles and green onions, last far longer.

Urb’s Herby Vinaigrette

Make dressings fresh, just as you do your salad. Building even relatively complicated dressings take no time at all, and is a delightful exercise. Dressings in big ass plastic squeeze jars isn’t how we should want things to be – That’s done for the benefit of the seller – not for us. Whip up what you need, plus some extra to go to lunch with you tomorrow. Building in smaller, fresher batches yields far superior results, and furthers exploration of what you really like – Maybe even your own signature thing – And that’s very cool indeed.

Home grown herbs

Fresh herbs rock in salads, within bounds of reason. When they’re fresh, herbs are at the pinnacle of their potency – Keep That in mind, along that with the fact that a whole sage leaf may be enough to season a whole batch of stew, and you get my drift. Use them sparingly – incorporated into dressings may be your best bet for balanced flavors that don’t overwhelm.

A basic lettuce blend is great as a base. If you’re of a mind to add more stuff like cabbage, kale, arugula, frisée, or chicory, keep in mind that not everyone may share the love – Allowing your crew to decide for themselves if they want to add them will often make for happier campers, and again, it gives you greater leftover flexibility.

Emeril Lagasse used to have a shtick on one of his shows, wherein he’d say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know about where your lettuces come from, but mine don’t come seasoned.’ There’s wisdom there – Good greens certainly have flavor and texture, but a wee sprinkle of salt and a twist of pepper will make those different tastes pop all the more.

Finally, here are three dressings I’m really liking this summer.

 

Urban Dijon Vinaigrette

1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/3 Cup Aged Sherry Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard

1 teaspoon Agave Nectar

1 sprig fresh Thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 clove fresh Garlic

Pinch of Salt

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

 

Trim, smash, and mince garlic.

Pull leaves from thyme stalk and mince.

Combine all ingredients in a mason jar and cover, then shake vigorously to combine.

Allow to marry for a few minutes, and shake again prior to serving.

 

Urb’s Herby Vinaigrette 

This is a very vibrant dressing – Makes a great marinade for chicken or pork too. 

Fresh herbs are best when you have them.

1/2 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar

2 Tablespoons fresh Lemon Juice

1 Tablespoon minced fresh Garlic

2 teaspoons minced fresh Sweet Onion

3 teaspoons Oregano

2 teaspoons Tarragon

2 teaspoons Parsley

2 teaspoons ground Black Pepper

2 teaspoons ground Mustard

1 teaspoon Rosemary

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Salt

2 whole Bay Leaves

 

Combine all ingredients in a mason jar and cover, then shake vigorously to combine.

Allow to marry for a few minutes, and shake again prior to serving.

 

Urb’s Teriyaki Joint Dressing

If you’ve ever had teriyaki in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve had a variant of this dressing. 

I love the stuff, and I bet you will too. If you go all out and make fresh mayo at home for this, it’s stunningly delicious.

1 Cup Mayonnaise

1/4 Cup Toasted Sesame Oil

1/2 Cup Rice Vinegar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar 

2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce

1/2 teaspoon Granulated Garlic 

Combine all ingredients in a non reactive mixing bowl and whisk vigorously to combine.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.

With all that to consider, it aughta be a pretty swell salad season, don’t ya think?

What Should We Do With Homegrown Produce?

It’s high summer here in the Pacific Northwet and, (I apologize for this next part), it’s been a very pleasant one indeed – Lots of sun interspersed with decent period of cool and plenty of rain. This means the garden is very, very happy. Despite the recent broad scale heat wave, reports from friends all across the country indicate similar bounties – This begs the question, what should we do with home grown produce?

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Planting and growing a garden is an exercise that can easily lead to excess. Starters and seed packs look so dang appealing, we load up maybe more than we need. Add the unknown factor of actual produce yield, and we can easily find ourselves swimming in the stuff – Ask anyone who’s planted zucchini about that – especially the folks who don’t like zucchini…

So what should we do with our garden bounty? The answer is to have a plan, and confirm that what you have in mind is doable in the time you’ll likely have. Just as we don’t cook as often as we’d like to, (or think we will), our best laid plans for dealing with a lot of produce have to be tempered by reality. It is absolutely possible to grow a lot of veggies and keep waste to a minimum – Here are some ideas you might find appealing for your situation.  

Home grown herbs

A lot of gardeners fail to take into account the amount of work actually needed – Something needs to be done daily. Frankly, this is a privilege and not a chore, and should be recognized as such. With as crappy as the world’s gotten lately, stepping into your garden after a day of reality is a gift. Watering, weeding, trimming, checking for pests, harvesting – It’s all good therapy, and it’ll keep your garden healthy and productive. And do ask yourself how often things you’ve grown rot on the vine – it happens a lot in home gardens. Making sure that what you’ve grown makes it to someone’s table really is job #1.

Stagger your home garden planting for greater yield and manageability

Stagger your planting. For one thing, doing so ensures that the kits keep on coming, and has the added benefit of making harvesting more manageable. Read up on the expected times from plating to harvest for what you grow, so you can plan accordingly. This simple step will help quite a bit, and it’s fun too –  having new stuff growing and thriving is absolutely good for the soul as well as the stomach.

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Be realistic about what will get used right away. With the way and frequency most folks cook, that’s an unlikely scenario. A lot of homegrown produce gets wasted because we don’t take this factor seriously enough. All that stuff looks great sitting on the counter or in the fridge, right up to the point that it starts to rot and has to be tossed. If you come all the way through the non-productive months with stuff from your garden frozen, dried, or canned, you’re doing well. Yes, fresh tastes best, but home grown is a delight any time of the year. 

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Some form of meal planning is a must, to avoid waste and get the most out of what we buy or grow. When harvest season is in full swing for your garden, take into account what’s fresh now, as well as what will be within the next few days, and incorporate as much of that as you can into your planning. That’ll go a long way toward limiting garden waste.

You don’t need a vacuum sealer to freeze stuff, but you do want to have sufficient, appropriate containers or wraps to get the job done. A lot of fruit and veggies will fit canning jars or glass storage containers with airtight lids, and a layer of parchment with another of metal foil on top of that will also do a fine job. Any of those options will do a good job of resisting freezer burn too.

Store dried herbs in glass

A dehydrator does the best job of drying, but your oven on warm, or plain old solar radiation, will do fine. Store dried produce in airtight glass containers. From fruit and veggies to herbs, this is a great way to extend the harvest year round. Keep this stuff in a cool, dry corner of your kitchen out of direct sunlight, for best longevity and flavor retention.

Nothing beats home grown produce!

Pickling is a great way to enjoy your homegrown goodies. A fridge pickle can be done very quickly indeed, with a minimum of fuss.

Fridge pickling is a great way to preserve homegrown produce

Share the bounty liberally. This is what we’re called to do as humans and members of a community. Contrary to all too common belief, food banks and shelters are happy to take excess home garden produce. It’s a wonderful gift to those in need, and if the opportunity doesn’t feed your desire for a couple more starts of this and that, I don’t know what will. Got older folks who can’t garden any more in your neighborhood? How about single parents, or young moms with their hands seriously full? Far too many of us are shy about asking, and we shouldn’t be – Chances are very good that your offer will be gratefully accepted and appreciated. How about your coworkers? Are folks at the job blown away when you describe all that you’re growing? They’ll be all the more thrilled when you share the bounty – Maybe even them zucchini.

Blanching & Freezing Fresh Peas

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Three years ago almost to the day, I posted this, and here we are full circle. Enjoy!

Received this PM earlier today, from alert and hearteningly honest reader Sarah, who lives in the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio.

‘Recently saw the photos of your wife’s garden. It just so happens that I planted peas for the first time this year, and lo and behold, they actually grew! I ended up harvesting a big pot, and then realized that I really don’t know the step by step for preserving these things! Naturally, I though of you, so, what do I do?!’

Well, Sarah, first and foremost, I hope you know how much it thrills us that you thought of us first with such a great question. Secondly, good on ya for asking, and third, your timing couldn’t be better – Monica and our two lovely Granddaughters picked a whoppin’ big bowl full of fresh peas last night – They’ve headed for the park, and I’ve been tasked with pea processing – so let’s get after it!

Freezing really is the best thing to do with fresh peas. You didn’t mention the variety you grew, so first we’ll touch briefly on the three most common versions, shell, snow, and sugar snap. Shell, (also called garden, English, or Sweet), are thin skinned peas with an inedible shell. Snow peas, (also called Chinese pea pods), are smaller peas with a thicker, edible pod. Sugar snaps, (or just plain snap), peas are a cross between the former and the latter, with a very thick, edible pod and relatively large mature peas.

Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.
Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.

For both snow and snap varieties, while you can and should eat some whole when they’re just picked, it’s best to remove the fibrous strings that run along the seams before you do so.

Regardless of what variety you’ve grown, you’ll want to freeze them. Canning peas is laborious, and frankly, doesn’t yield very good taste or appearance. Shell peas must, of course, be shelled prior to freezing. Snow peas can be frozen whole, as long as they’re blanched first – If you don’t do that process diligently, you’ll end up with nasty, mushy results.

With snap peas, I’ve found that whole peas just don’t freeze very well; they’re really delicate things, which is why their freshness is so fleeting. For my mind, it’s best to eat and cook whole peas at the peak of their freshness, and to shell anything you’re going to freeze. Don’t toss the pods however; sauté them in a stir fry, or better yet, make a pea stock, which makes a phenomenal base for split pea soup. Here’s how.

Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup
Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup

Snap Pea Stock

10 Cups Water
4-6 Cups empty Snap Pea Pods
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Carrot, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons Celeriac or Celery Leaf
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Bay Leaf

Put everything in a large stockpot over medium high heat.

As soon as the stock begins to simmer, cover and reduce the heat until you’ve got a very slow simmer; cook for 45 minutes.

Pour the stock carefully through a chinoise, or a colander lined with cheese cloth into a clean mixing bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to clean glass jars, or a freezer bag. May be frozen for up to 4 months, or refrigerated for 3-4 days prior to use.

Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant and lovely stuff to boot
Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant, flavorful, and lovely stuff to boot

To preserve those peas, you’ll need to shell them. As with all production cooking processes, set yourself up an area where you can have everything arranged right at hand. To shell fresh peas, grab one and turn it wide seam side up, with the stem away from you. Grab the stem between thumb and forefinger, and zip it back toward you – that’ll remove the fiber along the seam. Now zip your thumb nail along the seam and viola, your pea will open up like a book. Push the peas out of the pod and into a mixing bowl.

Now it’s time to blanch. There are a lot of questions about blanching, and most, if not all of them are answered here at one of my favorite cooking sites, serious eats. Blanching is a short, high temperature cooking cycle done in boiling water, followed by an immediate plunge into ice water. We blanch for three reasons when – To
destroy enzymes that begin to break produce down once they’ve been harvested, to preserve great color, and to keep them crisp – All very worthwhile pursuits, indeed.

The fine print for blanching is that you want two things without question – First, you need water at a steady boil through the relatively short cooking time, and secondly, you need to plunge what you blanched into ice water immediately after cooking. Those things are non-negotiable for the success of the process.

The old adage about using lots of water to blanch really doesn’t translate all that well to home kitchens – The logic ran that a relatively large volume of water won’t lose temperature as drastically when food is introduced. That’s true for commercial stoves, but not so much for home cooks – If you’re blanching in small batches at home, a pot with one quart, (4 cups), of water will actually recover a boil far faster than larger volumes.

Second issue is salting. The sages say ‘salt heavily’, and to some degree, that’s true. You want water about as salty as the ocean, or about 3%. The wonderful website Pickl-It has a super handy brine calculator that’ll let you dial that right in, (and its 1 ounce of salt for 1 quart of water). Now, this requires weighing, because the fact is, all salt weighs differently. I can’t recommend a small kitchen scale enough – They’re cheap, easy to use, and if you get at all serious about baking, you’ll want to have one anyway. I’ll give you a cheat and tell you that 1 ounce of the most popular kosher salt is roughly 5 teaspoons. While Harold McGee notes in his epic reference volume, On Food and Cooking, that salt tenderizes veggies by interacting with natural pectins, this also means that too much can make your peas soft.

Finally, there’s time. I don’t know how many folks I’ve heard say that you ‘blanch for about a minute,’ and frankly, that dog just don’t hunt. Blanching time varies depending on what’s being blanched, and you should pay attention to that. The Reluctant Gourmet has published a great blanching time list, so head over there, read and heed.

OK, now we’re ready. It’s possible I just made blanching sound really laborious, but it’s not at all. Set up a station so everything is close at hand. You’ll want a stock pot of salted water, a large bowl with ice water, and a single mesh strainer handy.

Everything set up to blanch
Everything set up to blanch

Shelled peas do indeed blanch for about a minute. For peas, corn, and a whole lot of veggies that are small individual things, I add about a half tablespoon of butter to the blanching water. It doesn’t impart much taste, and it helps them freeze without turning into a block of peas or whatnot.

A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate
A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate

Once your water is boiling merrily, throw in those shelled peas and count off a minute. As soon as the time is up, carefully pour the peas into a single mesh strainer and immediately into the ice water. Work the peas around gently with a slotted spoon to help them cool. Let them sit in the ice water for about 3 minutes, until they’re thoroughly cooled. Scoop off any remaining ice, pour the peas back through the strainer, then transfer them to a clean mixing bowl. Viola – bright, crisp blanched peas.

Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas blanched and ready for the freezer

Now it’s time to package for freezing. A vacuum sealer is the bomb for such things, but not everybody has or really needs one. Next best thing is a nice, heavy freezer ziplock style bag. Portion the peas into bags based on your anticipated use – I portion for two, as you can always whip out an extra bag for guests. Seal about 90% of the bag, then suck all the air out that you can, and zip it all the way closed while you’re still sucking. That’ll do about as good a job as possible to deter freezer burn and keep things fresh. Label your stuff with the date, pop them in the freezer and you’re good to go.

Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas ready for the freezer

So, there you go, Sarah – Maybe more than you asked for, but hey – You got me started! Happy preserving.

Why Does American Produce Suck?

Got this message the other day, from Mike and Sally Poutiatine,

Hey Food-Dude,

Sally and I have a query – we noticed recently in Ireland that the produce there is SO much better than we get in our restaurants or stores in Spokane. We found eating either in a hole-in-the-wall pub or a 4-star Castle dining room the greens were equally good and way better than we find most of the time in Spokane. The veggies in general in Ireland were much better (though they tended to cook them about 10 times as long as necessary) – We found the same thing before when traveling in Italy, Japan and the UK in term of quality. Is it as simple as faster, more direct farm to table? Or do other countries just take green veggies more seriously than we do? Why is that?

My immediate response was this, ‘Oh, I am SO making this the next blog post – Great question!’

Simple salad with real lettuce - A whole ‘nuther animal
Simple salad with real lettuce – A whole ‘nuther animal

The serendipitous part of the question is this – Earlier, while watering our very bountifully producing little veggie and herb garden, (a daily ritual I not only love, but seem to need), I was contemplating the same thing. Our stuff tastes so much better than 90% of what we find for sale – The only thing that rivals it is found in trips to our local farmers market, and through good CSA operations. And therein lies the short answer – While M and I choose not to accept the produce status quo here, most Americans accept (and have been indoctrinated to expect), relatively shitty produce. That is not good, and it needs to change.

Typical Grocery Store Produce - Bletch!
Typical Grocery Store Produce – Bletch!

The first thing that comes to most folks minds when they experience this is the natural assumption that some combination of basic factors are better over there – Better soil, environmental conditions, and so on – But truth be told, that’s a bunch of hooey – writ large, there’s demonstrably nothing special about european soil, etc, that makes their produce taste better than American produce. This has been pretty well studied, and it comes down almost solely to the fact that most world food cultures other than ours value flavor and taste in their produce more than we do – That’s it. That said, we could be, (and more and more folks are), growing stuff every bit as good – it’s just not often sold in mass market grocery stores.

Mighty ‘Mato’s - Not your typical grocery store fodder
Mighty ‘Mato’s – Not your typical grocery store fodder

Let’s take tomatoes as an example – Many will cite the famous Italian San Marzano as the ne plus ultra of tomatodom, but truth? There are a lot of shitty San Marzanos, gang. Like anything else that gets wildly popular on a worldwide scale, production needs outstrip high quality real quick – And by the way, those things are basically Roma’s, a paste tomato variety – They’re great for sauce when grown right, but for other stuff – Not so much. Here on this side of the big pond, (where tomatoes originally come from, after all), you can bet there are some amazing ones. We make a point of planting Mighty ‘Mato grafted tomatoes each year – They’re a thing developed by Dr. Jim Baggett of Oregon State University. Grafting makes them stronger, more disease resistant, and boy oh boy, do they yield – And they’re stunningly lovely. Yet despite all that, they don’t lend themselves well to being sold en mass, so… Or take the case of horticulture Professor Harry Klee, of the University of Florida, creator of the Garden Gem. That’s an incredibly tasty, hearty, disease resistant variety with a great shelf life – But at roughly half the size of the ‘average’ grocery store tomato, virtually nobody appears interested in bringing those to you and me. And here’s the kicker – The Italians have ordered tens of thousands of Garden Gem seeds – Insult to injury for American consumers.

Lettuce, real lettuce, just doesn’t ship, store, or last all that well...
Lettuce, real lettuce, just doesn’t ship, store, or last all that well…

How about lettuces? Well, M and I grow those, and let me tell ya, those are exactly what I was thinking of when I was watering the other day – A simple salad we’d made had taste and texture, because of the lettuce – Shut up! Ah, but those aren’t nice, uniform, large, tough, resilient heads you can ship and display and sell for days, so, they’re out too.

Real Celery isn’t insipid - It’s flavor packed and seriously crunchy
Real Celery isn’t insipid – It’s flavor packed and seriously crunchy

Celery, maybe? Celery?! Tasteless, boring celery? Well, in the store, yes, that’s exactly what it is. Our plants are anything but. They have bold flavor to match a crisp, crunchy texture – The leaves alone are potent and complex – But they don’t grow in big, tight, uniform bunches either so again, no go.

Herbs should never come in plastic containers...
Herbs should never come in plastic containers…

Whatever you name – Chiles, peas, cucumbers, radishes, and any herb there is – You’ll find them in the store, but what you’ll find in this country is chosen for the unholy trinity of shipability, shelf life, and the appearance of relative bounty – Three things you and I definitely do not need.

Wanna take a guess at how many folks know that this is how artichokes grow?
Wanna take a guess at how many folks know that this is how artichokes grow?

Mike followed up with this thought, ‘I have always assumed that the produce we get from our stores is tasteless because the distance from producer to table is so far – and I am sure that is part of it. But your observation that we have grown used to bad produce is insightful. We eat bad produce because we just don’t care about produce.’

Sad but true, my friends. There’s a local garden here in our area, much beloved, and big enough to regularly supply local grocery stores with produce in season. It’s pretty, and it’s fresh, but frankly – It’s a local version of the same stuff we always see – It’s chosen for those three criterion I mentioned – And as such, there’s really no magic there.

Produce magic begins at home
Produce magic begins at home

The good news is that things do seem to be changing for the better. Folks of many generations here are growing tired of paying for crap, which is forcing Big Agro to change, some anyway. We see far more varieties of apples than days of old – Same goes for lettuce, onions, chiles, and so on – And there is stuff therein that is quite good, if we choose wisely. More and more stores are stating straight out where stuff comes from, which is good, and if you do your due diligence, there’s quite a bit more to be sussed out.

A lot of that process means really, truly checking out what you’re choosing – Do you squeeze, poke, prod, and sniff what you’re buying? Do you find a produce person and ask pointed questions? That might be anything from, where is this from and when did it get here, to what’s the harvest date on this, (there is damn near always a harvest or packing or production date), to ‘I don’t know how to tell a good (your selection here) from not – how do you do that?’ In any store worth your hard earned dough, they’ll be able to answer those questions – And if they can’t, (or you don’t ask), shame on you – You get what you pay for.

Mike’s next query was, ‘So what do we do in the US that shows the care and quality that we found in the seemingly universal high quality of Irish produce?’

The good news is that there are things to be found here, and that trend is slowly but surely growing, all over the country – If you read the Rancho Gordo bean post, there’s a shining example. Try those, and suddenly you’re thinking, ‘why am I buying these plastic bags and cans full of tasteless crap when these are out here?’ I’ve seen it first hand with stuff from our friends CSAs in Minnesota as well – How folks react when they have celery that has taste, what good lettuce is like, and so on.

That’s what fresh produce looks like, gang
That’s what fresh produce looks like, gang

As for a specific answer to Mike’s last question, I’d say this – If they come here planning to cook, and have facility for such and then go to an average grocery store, what will they get? Mostly crap, unfortunately. If they’re smart, which I think many are, they’ll seek out and find farmers markets – those are the gold standard here these days. In our relatively little town, there are dozens of producers offering gorgeous produce, grown with genuine love and care, just as we do here at home – I’ve had everything from rainbow carrots with amazing taste and crunch, to tiny fingerling potatoes that were melt in your mouth delicious, with a slight tang of the earth they came from as a back note.

So if there’s a unified field theory as to how we go about changing the status quo, this would be my three cents worth.

1. Always grow a garden. You can do this, damn near no matter where you live or what you live in. From window sill to big ol’ plot – Do it – You’ll get better produce, and perhaps more importantly, tending a garden and playing in dirt is good for your soul.

2. Find a Farmers Market near you and patronize that. You’re supporting the little, local folk, and nobody deserves that more – And again, you’ll generally get far superior produce to anything in a chain grocery store.

3. Find a CSA operation Netra you and patronize that. That’s Community Supported Agriculture – we’re the community, and the growers can be anything from those same folks who sell at farmers markets, to larger scale folks who do most of their selling through CSA – Again, no one I know is more deserving of your patronage, and frankly, no one I know is more deserving of great produce than you are.

That ain’t how we play…

I tweak and republish this post annually; I think you’ll see why when you read it.

See, I’m not out to be tragically hip, in fact quite the contrary. Or maybe Matthew Selman said it best; “I wish there was another word than foodie; how about ‘super food asshole’, or ‘pretentious food jerk’?” I just don’t wanna go there.

Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but right now, many are judged ‘Great’ because somebody took a really, really nice pic of some food, or is on the fast track to be the next Food Channel Super Food Asshole. Frankly, when the ‘best’ food blog sites reject people because they don’t meet criterion such as that, I’m more than not interested, I’m actively turned off.

I write about food from some pretty simple perspectives. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you, in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is not very good. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well. To be honest, if no one read this blog, I’d write it anyway, because I do it for me first and foremost; I gotta share what I love. That’s just how I’m wired.

So, when I look at ‘real’ food blogs, I see the stuff that, fairly often, folks ask me about here, or more to the point, ask me why I don’t do these things. There are three oft repeated comments, and they are,
Why don’t you list nutritionals and calories,
Why don’t you post prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?

So, in a nutshell, here’s why;

Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have any idea about that. If I list a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and on and on. This ain’t a restaurant, and I’d bet your house isn’t either; neither of us needs everyone to eat the same portion. For the record, I predominantly do recipes for two, with planned leftovers, the idea being general efficiency, and the fact that anything good will be great the next day. Other than that, you’re kinda on your own. I mean I can give you a great biscuit recipe, but how big you make ’em, and how many y’all wolf down is kinda your gig, right?
Don’t get me wrong, nutrition IS important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to this is to buy carefully and thoughtfully. Buy locally whenever you can. Read the labels on food and avoid the stuff that’s truly bad for you. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can, from scratch, at home. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as we go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just click on our link for Calorie Count and go to town. There’s a mobile version out for your Apple or Android smart phone as well now.

Next comes prep and cooking time.


Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely close to humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same level, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I can stem, seed and core a tomato blindfolded, without cutting myself, in about 15 seconds; can you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally; does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? If I can prep Dish A in 10 minutes and you take 20, should you not make that dish? Of course not! And really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right NOW?! Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – Who gives a rats ass how long it takes if you have the time and want to make it? If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.

Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a whacky spice cabinet. You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicated lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much stuff is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? If you’re asking me, I think the question is rhetorical. And frankly, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second; in this day and age, almost anyone in this country, and many others, can get anything they want. I recently shared a bacon recipe with a pal from South Africa. He ended up having to go all over creation to find several ingredients, but he did it, ’cause he really wants to try my recipe. Kinda like that last discussion on prep and cooking, huh? Ive mailed corn meal to Australia and mustard seed to Israel; if you can’t get something you wanna try, hit me up, I’ll help. I’ve also gotta point out that we constantly encourage and desire experimentation, so if you’re making it, put what you like in it: Give us credit the first time, and then it’s yours…
I say that if you love cooking and great food, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir; who knows what you’ll do with them?

We do this because dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. If that ain’t good enough, so be it.

This is Our Tribe

It’s Gathering time. Every year at this time, we head sixteen hundred miles due east, to the shores of Squeedunk lake, in north central Minnesota. There, at the home of Grant and Christy, we meet with friends old and new to celebrate stringed instruments, and much more – This is our Tribe.

Our office for the week
Our office for the week

We own www.luthiercom.org, a site dedicated to the building of stringed instruments, and the sharing of that arcane knowledge with anyone and everyone who wants to take part. The Gathering is an unusual thing for a modern day social networking site – A dedicated time for friends from the ether to actually meet in the real world, at a truly magical place. There is much talk, much sharing of special skills, much music played and sang, and very, very much food and drink. Monica and I are Co-Hosts and designated event Chefs, and it couldn’t be more fun to do – The Gathering is a magical place to cook.

Shopping, Squeedunk style
Shopping, Squeedunk style

Grant and Christy grow much of what they eat, so virtually all the produce we use in 5 days of cooking comes from their gardens. So do the hops with which Grant brews gallons and gallons of beer for the event. Everything else we cook with is local – This year, Ron brought a gift from Winona LaDuke – some fresh buffalo meat for us to work with, as well as his family’s Georgia sourwood Honey, (He’s also brought some amazing moonshine back from there over the years, I can tell you!) We had 14 dozen of the most amazingly fresh, local eggs as well, with deep yellow-orange yolks and true substance to them. Grant’s son Jim and his partner Shel made incredible cheddar bratwurst from venison they’d harvested last year, right on the property.

Fresh walleye, cornmeal and tempura
Fresh walleye, cornmeal and tempura

A neighbor contributed a whole bunch of fresh walleye fillets – It being Friday night, they got fried two ways – in cornmeal and tempura. Donna did panfish ceviche that was to die for. Mitch brought his rightfully famous slow cooked, pulled pork with Carolina mustard sauce, and Lis brought amazing puerco pibil, cooked in banana leaves from the tree in Grandt and Christy’s living room. This is pretty typically how it goes.

Incredibly fresh, local eggs
Incredibly fresh, local eggs

In the last couple of years, we enjoyed a ridiculous excess of shiitake mushrooms, but the weather didn’t cooperate this year, (fear not – We had all the dried and roasted/frozen we needed, as well as some fresh chicken of the woods Bonnie foraged and brought along, which is good, ’cause we feed a healthy crop of vegetarians too!.

Freshly foraged Chicken of the Woods
Freshly foraged Chicken of the Woods

We did, however, have a bumper crop of beautiful poblano chiles, and lots of traditionally harvested wild rice, so we paired those with Winona’s buffalo – They were, of course, a big hit.

Fresh poblanos
Fresh poblanos

We cook three meals a day, but they’re timed and spaced specifically to accommodate the laid-back atmosphere of the gathering. Brunch gets eaten right around noon, the midday meal slides to somewhere around 4 PM, and dinner to between 8 and 9 PM.

The Round Heeled Woman Speakeasy - Its underground, folks!
The Round Heeled Woman Speakeasy – Its underground, folks!
The back door to the Speakeasy - Leads to our room, no less!
The back door to the Speakeasy – Leads to our room, no less!

After that, it’s music on the main stage, and maybe a trip down to the Round Heeled Woman, the underground speakeasy – Yes, there’s and underground speakeasy, and in fact, the back door that establishment is a ladder down from the room we stay in – I told you, this is truly magical – It’s not uncommon for music and even lutherie activities to go in well into the wee hours, (and that’s why brunch is at noon).

Friday Dinner - Fish, of course!
Friday Dinner – Fish, of course!
It's time for grub!
It’s time for grub!
The view from the main stage
The view from the main stage
Brunch time
Brunch time

Our work ranges from brunch for a dozen, to lunches and dinners for 50 or more. Folks volunteer to pitch in, and we cheerfully put them to work on prep and cooking as needed. Chris and M and I do some planning, and most years, we more or less follow the gist of that, but as the saying goes, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy – We’ve planned to do a coffee roasting demo for 2 years now and have yet to get around to it, and we never did salt cure egg yolks, but hey, just wait until next year.

Salt potatoes were a big hit
Salt potatoes were a big hit

We did two batches of salt potatoes that the crowd went nuts over, paired with fresh chimichurri. And our Yakitori Sauce marinated a couple of wonderful pork tender loins – Hmmm, this was a very pork-centric year, huh? There was amazing fruit, so blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo all made a showing, along with mango butter and granita. Biscuits and pie dough were about as deep as the baking got, ’cause it was kinda warm this year.

Blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo
Blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo
Mango butter is a special treat
Mango butter is a special treat

We didn’t take enough pictures, but, hey you get the idea, right? It was another fabulous time with friends old and new – The new ones are a gas to watch – John Joyce came up from the twin cities for the first time, arriving on Thursday evening into the middle of our chaos. At first, folks can be a bit intimidated with the craziness, intimate relations, and long running jokes and shtick, but those who get it are quickly drawn in. John brought some beautifully made instruments, number 13 being his newest – She’d only been strung up for 4 days before he arrived, but she sang like an angel. I’m glad to report that JJ is now hooked and is expected back next year.

And that’s how it goes. Interested? Wherever you are, you’re welcome to join us. I guarantee you’ll be blown away in the best sense of the words. Stay tuned for next year’s dates.

 

Cascade Hops, close to ready
Cascade Hops, close to ready
Crisp and tart pears at perfect ripeness
Crisp and tart pears at perfect ripeness
Chiles at the store
Chiles at the store
Gotta have tomatoes, right?
Gotta have tomatoes, right?

Sugar, and Spice, and Everything Essential

Sugar, and spice, and everything essential. That’s no nursery rhyme – That’s what needs to be in every home pantry, if spontaneity and discovery are to happen in your kitchen. Fact is, without a decent assortment of staples – Sweeteners, flours, herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, and the like, it can be awfully hard to successfully create on the fly. At the same time, its easy, (and pricy!), to go overboard on this stuff. What’s the happy medium, and what are the must haves? Let’s dive in and see.

Here at our kitchen, we have, well, pretty much everything. We have to, in order to do what we do for y’all – researching, creating, and testing recipes requires a ridiculous amount and variety of resources. Thankfully, your kitchen needn’t be quite so whacky to be well equipped. That said, you may want more than you’ve got currently, so how to decide what’s necessary? Let’s use our place as a guide, and pare things down to manageable for the average home kitchen. That should allow a cook to do as much as reasonably possible from scratch, and also encourage spontaneity.

Spice & Herb Overflow - It happens...
Spice & Herb Overflow – It happens…

Before we dive in to specifics, a note on organization. Some manner thereof is, of course, absolutely necessary. How that takes shape is up to you. The most common sense approach is to consider what you use most, and have those closest at hand. As far as I’m concerned, the Season As You Go rule is non-negotiable, so the core stuff needs to be close at hand. We keep our go-to salts and peppers front and center, right on top of the stove. Oils, vinegars, and other common sauces shouldn’t be much farther away, ditto for herbs and spices. Flours, sugars, canned, boxed, and bagged stuff is pantry fodder, if you’re fortunate enough to have one.

The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.
The fundamentals, salt and pepper, center stage.

In any case, make arrangements that make sense to you. Once you establish an order that works for you, keep it – In a professional kitchen, having things in the same place every time is a necessity, given the time constraints under which we cook. That rule really isn’t any different for us at home – Sometimes cooking is leisurely, but more often than not, it’s home at five and dinner needed around six, or some version thereof – So having everything where you expect to find it is imperative for efficiency and peace of mind. All that said, be open minded about change, if down the road your best laid plans don’t thrill you any more. Quarterly reviews of your resources and where you have them is a very good plan to follow. That gets you looking at expiration dates, freshness, amounts on hand, and what you haven’t used in forever on a regular basis – Include your fridge and freezer in that survey as well.

Why not start with those essentials, your go-to seasonings. As savvy cooks everywhere know, the core secret to great cooking is seasoning as you go. That means that the stuff you rely on for that process should be, as noted, closest at hand. This needn’t be complex. Salt and pepper really are all you need. Were one to pick a single version of each, what should they be? I’ll advocate for a sea salt, one with a moderate grain size – For this, you don’t want either really chunky stuff or super fine – Real sea salt contains a wealth of trace minerals that taste good and are good for you. There’s a bunch out there – I like the Bob’s Red Mill a lot, as well as the Celtic brand. For Pepper, you’re hard pressed to do better than a genuine Tellicherry berry, and that requires a little explanation.

Tellicherry Pepper - Size matters.
Tellicherry Pepper – Size matters.

Contrary to popular culinary myth, Tellicherry Pepper does not come from its namesake city in India. Tellicherry berries are defined by size, not location or heritage, per se. Pepper berries, Piper Nigrum, are harvested in February and March, then dried to become what we recognize as a pepper corn. In order to be called Tellicherry, pepper corns need to be 4.25 mm or larger, (and there’s actually a jumbo version, at 4.75mm and up). In any given crop, maybe 10% to 15% of the berries reach Tellicherry size, so it’s a bit rarer and a bit pricier, but well worth it – You’re getting the literal cream of the crop. As for other pepper, a look through our spice cabinet finds long, Tasmanian, grains of paradise, smoked, Szechuan, Lampung, Aleppo, white, green, and red, so yeah – You can go pretty ballistic on those. As far as I’m concerned, Tellicherry is all you really need.

Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z
Culinary Salts now run the gamut from A to Z

There are many more options for salts these days, as well – and you may or may not want or need them. Some of the legendary ones, like Malden, Sal de Mer, Himalayan pink, Bolivian Sunrise, and the like are truly spectacular, but they’re expensive – Really better suited as finishing salts for a special touch. I counted fourteen salt varieties in our spice cabinet, including kosher, flaked, smoked, and a raft of those fancy varietals – Again, you really don’t need most of those. If I had to pick a must have selection, it’d be sea, kosher, and flaked – That’ll cover the vast majority of uses you’re likely to want to mess with – And if the others catch your fancy, I say try those too, but sparingly. Salt and pepper don’t have an endless shelf life, so buy in small quantities, and use them up before adding more.

Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.
Essential oils, vinegars, and sauces get the same storage treatment as herbs and spices.

Next up, oils, and here too one can be complex or simple. For eons, what you could get was corn oil and olive oil, and little else. With the rising popularity of home gastronomy, the variety of oils available to cooks has blossomed considerably. For basic cooking, you can now find a number of relatively heart healthy oils in almost any store – canola, peanut, safflower, and sunflower, for instance. As with fancy salts, there are a bunch more fairly exotic oils – walnut, grape seed, coconut, hazelnut, avocado, and infused olive oils. While the latter bunch are delicious indeed, they’re really more for finishing or making vinaigrette than for cooking – And they’re fabulously expensive to boot. What you need is genuine Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for sure, and then a go to veg oil – Those will do the trick for 90% of your daily cooking chores. I’ll add one caveat, and that’s avocado oil. It’s become our go to, for several reasons – It’s got a light, buttery taste, it handles heat well, and is high in monounsaturated fatty acids.

For all thing flour, I’ll refer you to our Flour Power post from a while back – It’ll probably tell you more than you need to know.

Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.
Pantry is for bulk storage of staples.

Sweeteners are a bit more complex than refined white sugar, and should be – There are tastier, more potent options worth your shopping dollar. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have white sugar on hand – You should, and maybe even a couple variants – Regular white is a go to for many things, and the finer cut Baker’s sugar dissolves much faster, for baking or other cooking. Honey, real honey, local whenever possible, not only has greater sweetening power than sugar, it has the added benefit of subtle flavor notes that reflect the terroir your local bees worked to bring you their joy. Regulars here will know we’re also big on agave nectar. In addition to a lovely, light taste, like honey, agave has a lower glycemic index than white sugar, so here again, you can use less to obtain a commensurate level of sweetening power. Other sugars, brown, raw, and the like, carry a molasses flavor note white refined doesn’t, and some folks like that. If you bake, you’ll likely want some of those on hand. Molasses and corn syrup might also find favor with bakers. Alternative molasses, like Pomegranate, sorghum, carob and date, are popular for cooking Middle Eastern cuisine, and can add an exotic touch to many dishes and sauces.

Vinegar is a must as well, for everything from house made vinaigrettes to sauces and shrubs. Depending on what you like to do, you may need one or more variations on the theme. A few years back, I wrote a little primer on the basics – You can find that here. The one caveat I’ll underline is this – Infused vinegars are expensive, and they needn’t be. You can make great versions at home for next to nothing, and you should. Here are some ideas for that project.

There are a bunch of ready made sauces out there, so what do you really need? For my mind, a hot sauce or three is a necessity – A few drops of Tabasco, for instance, wakes flavor much as salt does, and adds a nice backbone note to soups and stews. Jalapeño based sauce has a milder, fruitier profile that goes great with everything from veggies to eggs. What else? Soy sauce is a must, (though beware, there are a slew of gourmet and ‘premium’ varieties that can get really pricy and aren’t really all that spectacular. There are now an abundance of dark and light varieties. Preference comes down to taste, so try a few until you find something you like, and then stick with it – The lighter version, by the way, differs mostly in color, the idea being not to turn things muddy when that’s not appealing. Fish sauce is another must have, and here you do need to be careful – There’s a lot of crap, even among the pricy stuff. Red Boat is the real deal – You can’t go wrong with a small bottle of that, and since this is added literally by the drop, a small bottle goes a long way. Obviously there are a bunch more sauces, and you may accumulate a few over time. Hopefully, you don’t get as crazy as we are, but then you never know…

Oils, vinegars, and sauces will break down in the presence of direct sunlight and heat, so store them in a cool, dark spot, in glass containers, and always read the label to see if something belongs in the fridge after opening.

Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.
Herbs and spices need dark, cool temps, and airtight glass jars.

And lastly, we come to herbs and spices. Here’s a place where, as you can see from our cabinet, a cook can go seriously off the deep end – That’s a blessing and a curse. Almost everything in a spice cabinet is sensitive to conditions and age – The volatile compounds that make herbs and spices do what they do mean that they can and will break down and degrade if stored improperly or kept too long. For dried herbs and spices, there are important caveats. First, sourcing – All herbs are not created equally – Provenance and proven quality matter. Although things are improving in terms of variety and quality, getting herbs and spices from the average grocery store isn’t what you want to do. A simple test illustrates why – A generic, store bought jar of oregano versus real stuff from a quality source like World Spice, or Penzeys, will prove the point. Open both and take a nice, long sniff. The sheer power and complexity of the good stuff quickly overwhelms the relatively insipid generic version. What you’re experiencing is ‘oregano’ against Mexican or Turkish oregano, with known sources of high quality – Game over. Everything you get from a good purveyor will perform like that. If you needed further motivation, what you get in the grocery is often more expensive than what the good providers charge. You’ll also have a choice as to how much of what you want to buy, and you can opt for whole or ground/mixed as well. Overall, it’s a no brainer if you’re serious about your cooking, (and if you’re here, you are.)

Onwards to storage – If your spices are in little jars in a spinny thingy on your counter top, and you got that stuff as a wedding gift and are still using it, you seriously need to repent, and soon. Sunlight, oxygen, and warmth are our friends, but for dried herbs and spices, not so much. Your stuff needs to be in a cabinet, out of direct light, away from extremes of temperature, and stored in small, airtight glass jars. That will safeguard your hard won goodies. Even so, age creeps up on us all, and spices are as susceptible as anything. This means that limiting how much and what you store is the best plan. We buy our staple, go to stuff, by the pound, but again, that’s because we do a lot of cooking to make this joint run – There are few, if any things in the spice world that the average home kitchen needs by the pound – An ounce of lemon thyme goes quite a long way, and you can have another in your mailbox in a matter of days. Buy quality, buy enough for maybe three months of use, and you’re good to go.

Of course, some herbs just beg to be used fresh, and if ever there’s an indoor gardening task you should undertake, a fresh herb window box is it. Check out our page on what we call the essentials, here. Between that and an annual herb and veggie garden, you can grow and then dry of freeze home grown stuff – There’s nothing finer, frankly.

This isn’t meant as a comprehensive kitchen analysis, but as a good starting point from which to learn and grow. Always be open to change, embrace what works and tastes good, and you’ll be hard pressed to go wrong. What we’ve outlined here should be sufficient to allow decent spur of the moment creativity on your part.

Split Pea Soup

Great ingredients make great soup
Great ingredients make great soup

If you’ve ever lived in the southern part of the U.S.A., then you’ve likely experienced the tradition of eating black-eyed peas, (AKA, Hoppin’ John), on New Year’s Day – Doing so is believed to be not only a harbinger of prosperity in the new year, but a pretty decent hangover cure as well. Other anointed foods for New Years include pork, corned beef and cabbage, whole fish, and even ring shaped eats. Here at UrbanMonique, we went to bed quite early on New Year’s Eve, but we still like to hedge our bets. As such, we decided it was a perfect night for M’s stunningly delicious split pea soup. That decision was made all the easier by the fact that we had leftover ham from Christmas, (including a gorgeous bone), and some amazing pea stock we froze back in the summer after harvesting snap peas from the garden. Split pea soup kinda gets a bad rap for the same reason Brussels sprouts do – Lackluster cooking, or overcooking, leads to less than stellar results – We’re here to shatter that reputation.

Ham glam shot
Ham glam shot

I hail from New England, where split pea soup has always been quite popular. Legend has it this dish was introduced to the region by southward migrating Québécois, but the ubiquity of split peas throughout many cultures may dispel that. Cultivars of Pisum sativum have been favored by humans for millennia – Romans and Greeks were growing them as far back as 500 B.C.E. – Given their propensity for far flung travel and conquest, it’s a safe bet they got them from somebody else. And in any age before modern food preservation, it’s a sure thing that drying peas was standard practice, as it still is today.

Harkening back to my comment about lackluster versions of split pea soup, it’s no surprise, frankly, when we recall the old rhyme, ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.’ Lets face it, if that was good eating, we’d all still be doing it. Starting out with high quality, fresh ingredients will quickly dispel that nightmarish vision. Your journey toward that end must start with the peas themselves. Many of us have a bag of the little green guys in our pantry, straight from the store – It’s just as likely that said bag of peas has been in your pantry since the Pleistocene era too, right? If so, that’s a problem right off the bat. Dried peas, beans, etc will last a very long time, if stored properly, but left in the original plastic bag and tossed onto a shelf in the pantry doesn’t qualify as ‘proper’. The main adversary for split peas is oxygen, and that’s the case for pretty much all legumes, pulses, etc. The solution is a decent quality, air tight container – With those in use, you can easily get 3 to 5 years of storage, and if you add an oxygen absorber, like Oxy-Sorb, which is specifically made for the purpose, you ou’ll easily extend your shelf life to 10 years or more. Oxy-Sorb is great stuff, cheap, and readily available, by the way – A 100 pack costs about ten bucks, delivered from numerous online sources, and big chain grocery stores sell it as well – Same goes for decent quality food storage vessels, (and frankly, you’d be hard pressed to do better than quart, half gallon, or gallon mason jars for that job.)

As with all great soups and stews, great split pea soup depends on carefully chosen components and a specific process of assembly. It is a simple dish, but nonetheless, there are definitive steps that need to be followed. As always, this begins with the essentials, (other than peas, of course) – That’s good ham with a nice, big bone, fresh aromatics, stock, and seasoning. As for the latter, all too often what’s used for split pea soup is what’s suggested on the plastic bag they come in, AKA, water. While water sure works, stock is so much better, and is key to great soup.

Homemade, great leftovers - All you need to get started.
Homemade, great leftovers – All you need to get started.

Vegetable or chicken stock will work great, and if you’ve been keeping up with class, then you’ve taken opportunities to make and freeze stock along the way. As mentioned previously, back in July we had a bumper crop of snap peas, and took steps to harvest and preserve those – In so doing, the inspiration for pea stock hit me and we made some – It was and is incredible stuff – a lovely translucent green, with a scent redolent of fresh peas, even when defrosted some six months later – There’s a testimonial to why we freeze, dry, can, or otherwise preserve great home grown food, if ever there was one, (That doesn’t mean you need to have matched us overachievers – Use what you’ve got – Homemade preferred, but store bought is just fine.)

And while we’re talking homemade, if and when you get a nice bone, never, ever throw it out. Sure, your critters will love ’em, but your house made stocks and broths will love ’em even more. As for aromatics – It’s a safe bet that in too many home kitchens, the carrots, onion, garlic, celery and the like might be a bit long in the tooth by the time you get around to using them – In a word, don’t do that. The French have it right when they go to the market almost daily – If it’s worth making and eating, it’s worth fresh ingredients – Don’t buy the big bags of bulk carrots, onions, etc – Go to the market frequently, and poke, prod, smell, and look when you shop – Reject the rubbery, the off colored, or too soft, and carefully pick fresh stuff – That is one of the real joys of shopping, so take advantage.

And finally, there’s seasoning. I’ve said this before and will again – If you’re buying herbs and spices from the grocery store, you’re missing out. If you’re using spices from a cute little revolving wheel thingy, and the spices came with that, and you got it when you got married, you’re fired. Herbs and spices have very bit as much a shelf life as other foods, and less so than some – they’re good for 6 months or so, if they’ve been prepared and stored properly. If your wheel o’ spices is out where sunlight hits it on a regular basis, your stuff is toast and needs to be replaced. If it’s not from a high quality source, like World Spice, Penzeys, Pendereys, to name just a few, you’ve no guarantee that what your buying is up to snuff – And finally, never use my sainted Father’s wine buying plan when it comes to spice – The more you get for less dough is not a successful strategy.

So, with all that, here’s the scoop.

M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup

4 Cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock
2 Cups Water
2 Cups (about 1/2 pound), Ham
1 nice big Ham Bone
1 Pound dried Split Peas
2 large Carrots
3 stalks Celery
2 Tablespoons chopped Shallot
3 cloves Garlic
1 Lemon
1-2 Tablespoons Parsely
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red Chile
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil.

In a stock pot over medium high heat, combine water, stock and the ham bone. When the stock begins to boil, reduce heat until its barely maintaining a simmer. Allow the stock and bone to simmer for 60 minutes.

An hour or so of simmering will properly marry the flavors of pork Bone and stock
An hour or so of simmering will properly marry the flavors of pork Bone and stock

Rough chop ham, cut carrots into half-rounds about 1/4″ thick, chop celery, dice shallot and mince garlic.

Aromatics, the heartbeat of great soup
Aromatics, the heartbeat of great soup

Zest lemon, cut in half.

Place peas in a single mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water, checking for non-food detritus.

Rinse and inspect pease before deployment!
Rinse and inspect pease before deployment!

In a soup pot over medium heat, add oil and heat through. Add carrot, celery, and shallot. Sauté until the shallot begins to turn translucent.

Always sauté your aromatics first!
Always sauté your aromatics first!

Remove Bone from stock and allow to cool, then give it to your dawg.

Add stock, water, ham, and split peas to soup pot with aromatics over medium heat. Stir to incorporate. When the soup starts to boil, reduce heat to barely maintain a slow simmer. Simmer soup for 1-2 hours, until the split peas are where you like them – just slightly al dente is the sweet spot.

Great split pea soup should look like what it's made from, not mush!
Great split pea soup should look like what it’s made from, not mush!

Add parsley, lemon thyme, a tablespoon of lemon zest, pepper, Chile, and salt. Stir to incorporate and taste, adjust seasoning as desired. Allow the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes.

Add the herbs and spices last so they don't lose their floral qualities
Add the herbs and spices last so they don’t lose their floral qualities

Serve nice and hot, garnished with a little more fresh lemon zest and shot or two of hot sauce if you like such things. A dollop of fresh sour cream doesn’t suck, either.

M's Heavenly Split Pea Soup
M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup

Serve with crusty bread and a glass of decent Zinfandel, and you’re in hog heaven.