Cook with All Your Senses

Surely, you’ve heard the adage, ‘We eat with our eyes,’ yes? Truer words were never spoken. And there’s more to it than that, of course – We also eat with our noses, skin, imagination, and memory, and you certainly should cook with all your senses. All that stuff is every bit as important as taste, frankly, and a savvy home cook never forgets it. It’s kinda like Obi-Wan’s epic line – You gotta use the force and let go of rigid, recipe thinking.

Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!
Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!

First, sight, naturellement. Many assume that the feast with your eyes concept speaks to plating and presentation. Certainly those aspects have a bearing on things, but frankly, there’s much more to it then that. Often enough, we come home from a long day at work, only to realize we gotta make dinner. Here’s where sight should first be employed – What you see around you should be your inspiration. As such, whenever and wherever possible in your kitchen, leave the good stuff out where you can see it and be inspired. Bowls of fruit and veggies, glass jars of pasta, beans, and rice, home canned goodies in mason jars – If all this bounty is packed away neatly in pantry or shelf, it’s not revealing itself to you – Put the goods out center stage, and be inspired. Make part of this scheme a rotating canvas of sorts. Go through your pantry and spice cabinet and pick out half a dozen things you’ve not used since you can’t remember when, then pull those out and display them where they’ll make you think. Take a look at the stuff you’ve got on display and do some paring – Chances are good that when you come home tired and hungry, these little vignettes will not only spark inspiration, but lift your spirits a bit as well – There’s a reason art makes us feel good.

pair things you've not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.
pair things you’ve not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.

In our piece on Banh Mi, I wrote, “Vietnamese cooks strive to include fiver  essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish.” Therein lies another clue to visual cooking – Use it when you compose a dish on the fly. If you’re here at all, you know we revere soups and stews, so here’s another tip – consider the over all pallet when you compose one. A great part of the joy of fresh veggies is the vibrant colors they add to what we eat – Balance those in a way that appeals to your eye and it’s guaranteed to make your belly happy as well.

Naturally, plating and presentation matters. Yeah, I know I’ve told y’all numerous times to not sweat it, and you shouldn’t – It should be a labor of love, not a chore. A little thing like a nice bottle of red opened, cork set on the foil round from the bottle, with a sparkling clean glass and maybe a flower in a bud vase. Set that out for your mate’s arrival home, and it can and will mean the world to a loved one. Presentation can be as simple as choosing the perfect bowl for that soup or stew – or offer some topping options in small ramekins – sour cream, freshly grated cheese. You’re offering not only dinner, but a delight for the eye, and of course, for the nose.

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

Everyone has had a head cold, and when we do, what do you notice? For most of us, it’s the fact that almost nothing tastes that good, even our favorite comfort foods. That’s very likely the root of the old wive’s tale, ‘starve a cold and feed a flu,’ with the latter, you feel like shit, but at least you can taste. Smell is a huge part of taste – Without it, us human are limited to the most basic flavors – salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami, and those not all that well. Doubt it? Pinch your nose shut and eat something you know well, say, a strawberry – With your olfactory blocked, you’ll get some flavor, maybe hints of sweet and sour – unblock your nose half way through and suddenly, there it is, all the subtleties that make a strawberry what it is. Those nuances are critical in fact; lose your sense of smell, and the world of food turns black and white – A horrible affliction, to say the least. As a home cook, I live to hear M say from the other room, “That smells amazing!” That means I’m on the right track with whatever I’m doing, and it guides me more than anything else while composing a dish. Let your heart and your nose be your guides, and never forget that the real subtlety of a dish comes from scent, far more than any other sense.

Finger food needn't be fancy to be pretty
Finger food needn’t be fancy to be pretty

So, we eat with our skin? Sure we do – If you’re like me, having tactile interaction with my food is important. We spent millennia eating before cutlery came around. Literally in every part of the globe, there are myriad dishes meant to be eaten by hand, and that’s a critical consideration for a cook. There are tacos, sandwiches, sausages, tajines, samosas, and many, many more. Such dishes exist on every continent, and may the food gods bless ’em all. The ubiquity of vehicles such as unleavened flat breads, tortillas, and the like exist largely to act as a shovel for wonderful things. Great fried chicken is a delight, at least in part, because we can feel the crunch, salty, hot outside layer as we bite into it – If that’s not proof of concept, I don’t know what is. Consider a finger food for your next menu – That could be as simple as fresh bread to mop everything else up with, or maybe small dishes of olives, cornichons, or pearl onions. One of our favorite low pressure meals is a picnic of whatever is at hand – meat, cheese, veggies, fruit, nuts, and bread, cut up to bite sized pieces, with Dijon mustard and house made giardiniera, and a nice glass of wine.

Don’t forget imagination and memory. Any of all of your senses can and will trigger things – The smell of the Asian take out at the grocery, potatoes frying on a flat top, the scent of freshly baked bread – These might spawn fried rice, pommes Anna, or banh mi for dinner. If it’s a fleeting glimpses e of something, grab pen and paper, write it down and stuff it in your pocket as a reminder – If not tonight, then down the line, but don’t lose the inspiration. By the same token, food memories are some of the most vivid internal imagery we conjure for ourselves. When we were kids, making mac and cheese or pizza may have involved a box, (Kraft, and Apian Way, I freely admit), but the memories are of cooking comfort food in a warm, steamy kitchen, and that’s all you need to be inspired. When one of those memories hits, use the power of 21st century technology to unlock something new – Google whatever it is, find a take on it that’s outside your usual mold, and go from there – As every chef from Jacque Pepin to me tells y’all, a recipe is just a guide – Use it to springboard something of your own.

When you feed your senses, imagination, and memory that way, it’s a solid guarantee you’ll never leave the table unsatisfied.

Sourdough

Sourdough. Yes, that. It’s funny that sourdough gets called things like ‘rustic’ or ‘rough’ as often as it does. Rustic is fine – if it’s not used in the pejorative sense – Rustic, as in, of the countryside, and of simple roots. The latter term, rough – Not so much. Great sourdough is anything but rough. And making great sourdough is far, far harder than many other breads. At work, we bake it every day, and it’s good sourdough, but it is, after all, production bread. Production is only half the reason that it’s good and not great sourdough – The other half of the equation is magic – The starter, because the real beauty of sourdough is fact that there’s arguably no food more tied to terroir – What you get is, eventually, exactly where you’re from – And that’s what makes great sourdough as much science as it is art. Interested? If you’ve ever wanted to do sourdough, but never dove in, now’s your time.

There are a lot of myths about sourdough, concerning everything from where and how we get it from, to how to properly make it. What we’ll endeavor to do here is to spell out some truths, deflate some of those myths, and offer a launching pad for future discovery, should you be so inclined. Even if you don’t decide to take the plunge, hopefully, you’ll have a better feel for what sourdough is, and the truly amazing amount of work that goes into making it. Believe that last statement, by the way – While making some form of sourdough is as easy as any other bread, doing it right is quite labor intensive. The parable that comes to mind is making farmhouse cheddar versus making real cheddar – The former is easy and fast – The latter takes literally all day, and requires such to be worth the effort. Sourdough done the traditional way is the cheddar of bread making.

Back in 1989, a pathologist named Ed Wood wrote a book, titled World Sourdoughs From Antiquity. Prior to that, Wood was working in Saudi Arabia. He did some traveling throughout the Middle East, and as a long time fan of sourdough, came upon myriad evidence of the long run sourdough has enjoyed in that part of the world. Wood noted that evidence of sourdough cultures that existed as far back as 10,000 B.C., and he’s right. He began collecting cultures, a thing a pathologist would naturally be quite good at. Eventually, he expanded his discovery and collection into the wider world, and ended up writing the book. He also maintained and cultivated all those various cultures, and to this very day, is more than happy to sell them to you. The book is, more than anything, a vehicle to do just that. This illustrates one of the most popular myths and challenges about sourdough – More on that in a bit.

Symbiosis at work...
Symbiosis at work…

First off, what exactly is it that powers sourdough – How does it really work? The root is indeed wild yeast, and that differs distinctly from the pure cultured yeasts used by the vast majority of bread makers. Back before Louis Pasteur figured out the fermentation process in 1857, bread yeast was largely sourced from yeast leftover from beer and wine making. The big problem with that lies in the fact that these yeasts were really chosen for their ability to make alcohol, not to generate the CO2 that bread makers needed.

Enter Charles Fleischmann eleven years later, in 1868. The Hungarian son of a distiller and yeast maker, when he emigrated to the U.S. and moved to Cincinnati, he was sorely disappointed in the quality of the bread he found there. He and his brothers developed a stable, reliable cake yeast for bakers, and the rest is history – And yes, those little bright yellow and red packages in your fridge are his work. That innovation was a major factor that lead to the mighty monolith that is industrial baking today, (over 75% of the bread sold worldwide is industrially produced). Sourdough plays some role in that, from big makers to small, it’s never died out. Yet real sourdough is very different from that tame, pet yeast the big guys are using.

What makes sourdough work is a critical symbiotic relationship between yeast and a couple of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus and Acetobacillus. Those little dudes work with the wild yeasts, breaking down and fermenting the sugars they find in dough. What’s unique about this arrangement is that, unlike most bread doughs, sourdough is acidic, and it’s that acidity that is largely responsible for the unique taste profile. Often enough, these bacteria are some of the same strains that turn milk into yoghurt and buttermilk. That’s not all – Sourdough bacteria have the distinct ability to resist other microbes that cause bread to go bad, and that’s why sourdough keeps better than most other breads.

Let it breath - Wild yeasts at work
Let it breath – Wild yeasts at work

So, here’s that first myth – That when in the comfort of your own home, you make a fresh sourdough starter, the wild yeast that becomes active is derived from the air around you. For the most part, at least starting out, it turns out that’s not true. The yeasts that’ll fuel your home starter comes predominantly from the flour you use – And if ever there was a fact warranting a wise flour buying choice, I’d say that’d be it. If and when you decide to make a starter of your own, (and you absolutely should), the flour you use should be the freshest, best quality, most local stuff you can find – When I made a batch for the writing of this piece, I spent over eight bucks for five pounds of local, organic, fresh flour from the town just south of ours, and believe me, were you able to stick your nose in my starter jar, you’d instantly know that it was worth every penny.

The other reason for local is this – Since the yeast that’ll power your starter comes off the flour, (and assuming you like the results), there’s a much greater chance that what you start out with is what you’ll get in the long haul, and therein lies the second myth we need to bust.

The Leaven - Sourdough Rocket Fuel.
The Leaven – Sourdough Rocket Fuel.

So, back to our buddy Ed Wood. He’s not a bad guy, and he obviously digs sourdough – He’s turned it into a successful business with a decades long track record. If you buy from a reputable place like Ed’s, you’ll get workable starters from where he says they came from. Yet, there’s one big problem with this whole concept of having your own San Francisco sourdough starter, if you don’t actually live there – and it’s not something that folks who sell this stuff necessarily want to talk about a whole bunch. Here’s the deal – Let’s say you make a starter with one of these legendary cultures, or even flour from some place well away from where you live – While any starter you make will rely on the culture you bought, (or again, from yeast in the flour you use), over time, the native wild yeasts in the air around you will indeed make their presence known. Eventually, your naive yeasts will prevail, and in the end run, that’s what will power your sourdough.

I did a pretty extensive review of foodie sites that had a lot of input and exchange from folks who have bought or been gifted starters from other places, and there’s a glaringly common thread therein – In essence, folks say that over time, all their various starters either started to taste a like, and/or less Iike they did when they first got it – A sure sign of native wild yeasts are stepping in and taking control. You can’t escape your local terroir, no matter how hard you try. I stopped making starters when we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, because to me, they just didn’t taste good. They worked fine, but tasted funky. Here, living right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the northwest corner of Washington State, I love what I get in my starter – It has a wonderful, briny nose to it that seems perfectly apropos. You get what you get.

So, you want to dive in – What to do? Well, rather than do my own step by step, I’m simply going to refer you to the best version I’ve seen in the subject anywhere, from the incredibly creative gang over at The Kitchn. You’ll find extensive text and pics for making and maintaining a starter, as well as several varieties of sourdough bread. While there are many ways to make sourdough, I find their primer the best out there – It’s as right as rain. That said, a few more thoughts on the process.

Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.
Weighing is always best, for everything you bake.

1. Pay heed to the caveats about how long sourdough takes to make. You really cannot successfully speed up the process. Wild yeasts are slower than their domesticated cousins, and you just have to be patient working with them. With sourdough, those friendly bacteria grow at a much faster rate than their symbiotic yeast partners – That ratio of growth eventually inhibits the yeasts ability to generate CO2, which is what gives us the lift for the rise. Additionally, those protein guzzling bacteria weaken the gluten in the flour, which mean your dough is less elastic – This also impacts the rise, but coincidentally contributes to the denser crumb sourdough is known for.

2. If you bake a lot, keep your starter at room temperature, and refresh them regularly with flour and water. When your starter is well established, you’ll want to toss half of it daily, and then refresh with 4 ounces each of flour and water. You can keep doing that, as long as you’re using it regularly. Whisking your starter a couple of times a day adds the oxygen your yeast needs to grow and multiply. Keep them relatively cool – under 74° F is ideal.

3. If you’re not going to use the starter for longer than 5 days or so, refrigerate it in an airtight glass jar. Once a week, pull your starter out before you go to bed, let it get up to room temperature overnight, and then feed it before refrigerating again.

4. If you’re taking a long break from baking, thicken your starter by adding 6 ounces of flour instead of 4 – Thick, doughy starters retard bacterial growth, which means less fussing with it for you. If you’re really gonna not be baking for a month or more, consider drying your starter out by spreading it thinly on parchment, waxed paper, or silicone baking sheets. When it’s fully dry, break up the starter into flakes and seal it in a clean, airtight glass jar. Dried, your cultures will last for months, just like Ed’s. 1/4 Cup of the flaked starter with 4 ounces each of water and flour will kick things back into gear for you.

Real deal sourdough
Real deal sourdough

So dive into those Kitchn posts and give them a spin – Your bread loving self and loved ones will thank you for it.

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.

Practical Meal Planning

My friend Mark Conley is a follower here, (and also a purty durn good guitar maker and educator, too!) After our last post on slow cookers, he asked this million dollar question about practical meal planning,

‘It is just me and my wife most dinners. Is this practical for us? I don’t like making massive amounts of food!’

Thank you, Buddy, for asking, because we seriously need to cover this stuff. The answer is yes, it’s not only practical, but it makes more sense than most other plans. Here’s why

M and I live with just our two critters, so all our cooking is for two. We cook throughout the week, of course, but what we make is often determined on short notice – By what looks good, sounds good, or comes in a flash or inspiration. We typically have one day off together, Sunday. Our ritual is coffee in bed, then breakfast in town, followed by shopping.

Generally, the center piece of that trip to the grocery store is one thing around which we’ll generate several meals. As y’all know, we’re omnivores, so that’s often chicken, pork, or beef – We buy a whole bird, or a large roast, and cook that on Sunday, and then enjoy several meals thereafter.

If you’re not doing something similar, you really should be – It’s far more efficient than coming up with something out of the blue every night, and it makes cooking much easier, which is imperative when you both work long hours as we do. Having a main course protein already cooked or ready to go is key. And it needn’t be meat, for that matter – tofu, cheese, and beans will all provide what you need and are just as delicious as fleshy stuff.

Fresh roasted veggies
Fresh roasted veggies

Of course, to do this right, you need a lot of good stuff, staples like fresh veggies and fruit, potatoes, pasta, tortillas, beans, oils and vinegars, and the like – And especially as we roll into the cold months, there’s nothing at all wrong with having a decent stable of canned and frozen goodies. We keep decent, organic cheese pizzas on hand, as well as frozen pasta, veggies, and fruit – A combination of bought and stuff we put up during the growing months. Add a decent rack of spices, herbs, and seasonings, and you’re good to go – Inspiration can strike at will.

Here’s a basic rundown in what we did with two of those primary proteins throughout the week, including alternate meals to break up the pattern and keep things interesting.

Clay cooker roast chicken
Clay cooker roast chicken

Whole organic, free range Chicken.

Sunday – Roast chicken and veggies, green salad.

Monday – Pizza with chicken, tomato, jalapeño, and fennel.

Chicken pizza with tomato, jalapeño, and fennel
Chicken pizza with tomato, jalapeño, and fennel

Remaining chicken pulled from bones. Carcass into a stock pot with remaining roasted veggies, and fresh mire poix, for stock – Refrigerated overnight.

Tuesday – Mac and Cheese, green salad.
Stock clarified, refrigerated.

House made Mac & Cheese
House made Mac & Cheese

Weds – leftover Mac & Cheese, (’cause it’s even better the next day!)

Thursday – Chicken soup, made with a 3 bean medley, tomatoes, onion, sweet peppers, green beans, peas and corn.

House made chicken veggie soup
House made chicken veggie soup

Friday – Chicken tacos with red mole, (frozen in an ice cube tray, so super fast to prepare), fresh lettuce and pico de gallo.

Chicken and red mole tacos
Chicken and red mole tacos

Saturday – Free for all leftovers.
Second Run – Local, choice sirloin roast.

Sunday – Roast beef and root veggies, fresh green salad and local sour dough.

Monday – Roast beef hash for brunch.

Tuesday – Beef nachos with onion, tomato, jalapeño, sharp cheddar, fresh salsa and sour cream.

Wednesday – Big ol’ garden salads and sour dough.

Thursday – Beef Chimichangas with fresh pico de gallo and sour cream.

Friday – Open faced cheese sandwiches with fresh veggies.

Saturday – Free for all leftovers.

Now granted, this isn’t anything magical, but it’s incredible tasty fare that’s good for you, and none of these meals take more than 30 minutes to prepare. When we get that Sunday plan done, it’s just a matter of what sounds good through the week, and sometimes meals are chosen predominantly for ease of prep.

If any of these particularly float your boat and you want a detailed recipe, just pipe up, and we’ll make it happen.

Calling All Vegans & Vegetarians!

Check out this absolutely delicious post on vegan/veggie sushi by my über talented Sister, Ann Lovejoy. I may be an avowed omnivore, but these dishes are genuinely mouth watering.

If you’ve not done so, subscribe to Annie’s blog while you’re reading her latest post.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade

I’ve got this young Manager, Taylor Beargeon, at the cafe. Turns out he and his mom are both followers here at UrbanMonique. Taylor has made a bunch of stuff we’ve posted, and we appreciate that more than we can say.

Skillet's Bacon Fennel Jam
Skillet’s Bacon Fennel Jam
The other day, Taylor brought in a jar of fennel, black pepper, and bacon spread from Skillet, the incredibly talented consortium of restaurants, catering, street food, and much more. Lead by Jon Severson, and packed full of an amazingly eclectic and talented mix of fellow Chefs, this Seattle mainstay is a happening thing. 

I tasted this stuff, and it was fabulous, indeed. Then the thing that always happens with me happened – I thought, ‘how would I do this?’ I trust that the folks at Skillet won’t begrudge that leap in the least – Sure, they’d love us to buy their stuff, but knowing all they do and how they do it, I believe that they’d be thrilled if what they did inspired a few home cooks.

I looked at the ingredients of their wonderful spread, and immediately saw some things that I’d change. That’s not a rip off, by the way, or a put down. It is, rather, the way things go in creative endeavors. The folks at Skillet didn’t invent the concept of bacon jams, this was just their swing at it. Tasting it, and wanting to do your own version is complimentary, not parasitic.

This is why I encourage y’all constantly to take your own swing at what we do here – It’s also why I regularly use guitar licks lifted from dozens of players who came before me – what it becomes is my own amalgamated style. And that’s also why I’m thrilled when somebody else cops something of mine.

Anyway, back to that Skillet Jam. Theirs contains bacon, onion, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice, black pepper, whole and ground fennel seed, granulated garlic, caramel color, and xanthan gum, (a pretty benign stabilizer). What I tasted was, appropriately, bacon first, then fennel, then sweet. Again, that stuff was really tasty, but it got me thinking about what I’d want to taste in such a thing, and so here we are. As such, let’s just take a little spin through the roughly six days between what Taylor started by sharing that taste, and what I came up with for y’all to try.

The origins of bacon jam are somewhat murky. Skillet’s received a lot of press as an original condiment, and their version certainly is that. Yet the real roots go back quite a bit farther than 2011 Seattle street food. Mincemeat recipes, (an amalgam of beef or mutton mixed with suet, fruit, nuts, liquor, vinegar, and citrus), are found as early as the 1400s in England. Mincemeat might be served as a main dish, (in a pie), or as a side for meat or poultry.

Chutney, an Indian condiment made from fruit and/or veggies, sugar or vinegar, and spices, hails back to several hundred years B.C.E.. 

Marmalade, fruit preserved in sugar and originally made with quince, harkens back to the ancient Greeks.

Pissaladière, the signature southern French pizza, is topped with what can easily be called an onion marmalade. 

And in Austria, a traditional dish, called verhackert, is a spread of minced bacon, garlic, and salt.

All of these things were made in order to preserve fruit, veggies, and meat for longer than their natural period of ripe and ready. Vinegar, salt, and sugar have all been used for just that purpose for thousands of years. Bacon jam, or marmalade, or chutney, are natural offshoots of these roots. As such, the sky is the limit for what you can and should try in your own kitchen.

Accordingly, I started thinking about what I had available and what I’d like to taste in such a thing. My first consideration was texture. That Skillet spread was just that – A processed blend of all that good stuff that you can scoop out with a knife and spread onto a sandwich or burger. What I wanted was something a bit more rustic, more of a marmalade feel.

Then came the taste palate I was after. What I wanted was big shots of savory and smoke, with sweet and heat as after notes. By that I mean literally, I wanted the savory and smoke to hit you front and center when you first taste the stuff, and the lingering notes to be sweet heat.

I had both fresh fennel and some super sweet little tomatoes in the garden, so those were definitely in. Sweet onion and shallot contribute savory, sweet, and heat notes, and would act as the anchor of the whole mix. Because fennel root is fairly delicate in and of itself, it wouldn’t stand up to the long, low and slow cooking a dish like this requires.

For the smoke, the bacon absolutely had to be the keynote. I used Hemplers, a stellar local bacon smoked in applewood. To really highlight the smokiness, I opted for Bourbon, (which also adds subtle sweetness), and a local Thai chile grown by a friend of my Sister that I’d smoked and ground this summer – That also brings the primary heat note to the mix. The final smoke note came from home roasted dark coffee. Touches of balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper round out the blend. Here’s how I did it.

NOTE: You may sub 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika and any hot chile flake if you don’t have a smoked chile as I did.

UrbanMonique’s Bacon, Fennel, Onion Marmalade

1/2 Pound Applewood Smoked Bacon
1 fresh Fennel Root, (About 1 1/2 Cups)
1 Cup Cherry Tomatoes
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion
1/2 Cup Shallot
2 cloves Garlic
1/2 Cup brewed Coffee
1/2 Cup Bourbon
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
1/2 teaspoon Chile flake or powder
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

As with any dish that calls for a bunch of ingredients, you’ll want to do all your prep, and have your mise en place set out neatly and close at hand before you start cooking.

Always get your mis en place!
Always get your mis en place!
Rinse, peel and and dice the fennel root, onion, and shallot, (about 1/4″ dice).

Rinse, stem, and quarter cherry tomatoes.

Stem, peel and mince the garlic.

Cut bacon into a roughly 1/4″ dice.

Heat a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.

Add the chopped bacon and sauté until it browns and starts to turn crispy, about 3-5 minutes.

Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to clean paper toweling.

Toss the onion, shallot, and fennel into the hot bacon grease and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes.

Transfer the veggies from the pan to clean paper toweling, with a slotted spoon.

Deglaze the pan with the bourbon, taking care to scrape loose all the little cooked bits from the bottom.

When the raw booze smell dissipates, return the bacon and salted veggies to the pan, add the tomatoes and the garlic, and stir to incorporate.

Add the coffee, vinegar, and maple syrup; stir gently to incorporate.

Season with chile powder, salt, and pepper and stir to incorporate.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down - Low and slow is the key.
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down – Low and slow is the key.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has all been absorbed and the blend has a nice, marmalade like consistency. A little loose is fine – It will tighten up as it cools.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade Cooking down

Transfer marmalade to a glass bowl to cool.

Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade
Bacon, Fennel, and Onion Marmalade

So, what’s it good on? Silly question! Damn near anything! Burgers, dogs, sandwiches, omelettes, chicken, pork – There’s a reason bacon is such a ubiquitous kitchen cheat.

Refrigerated in a clean, airtight container, the jam will last for 5-7 days.

Oh and hey – Thanks Tay Tay!

The French Mother Sauces

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For ease of use and reference, here are links to all five of the French Mother Sauces, as codified by Auguste Escoffier. Master these, and you’re well on your way to not only a working understanding of the heart of classic French cuisine, but to a lifetime of culinary discovery and invention all your own.

If you’ve not tried them, do, and may you have as much fun in your exploration as we’ve had in presenting them.

Allez cuisine.

Sauce Velouté

The classic Velouté - Light and creamy
The classic Velouté – Light and creamy

Sauce Béchamel

Béchamel - Creamy goodness!
Béchamel – Creamy goodness!

Sauce Espagnole

Sauce Espagnole
Sauce Espagnole

Sauce Hollandaise

Sauce Hollandaise - Gentle is the word
Sauce Hollandaise – Gentle is the word

Sauce Tomate

Sauce Tomate
Sauce Tomate

Sauce Espagnole

Onward with the Mother Sauces! Today, it’s sauce Espagnole. As intimated by the moniker, this mother sauce has its roots in Spain. As with Béchamel, Espagnole is another example of French innovation, adapting and refining the neighbor’s good works. The roots of this venerable sauce were documented in Spain in the late eighteen hundreds, and several derivatives are noted in regional cookbooks from back then.

Espagnole is potent stuff – While you certainly can enjoy it straight, it’s more often used as a base for derivative sauces, like Bourguignonne, (Espagnole, with red wine, shallot, and a bouquet garni), sauce charcutière, (Espagnole with chopped cornichons), and sauce Africaine, (Espagnole with tomato, onion, bell pepper, basil, thyme, and bay leaf), to name a few.

In a very real sense, the preparation of espagnole mirrors what is done to make dark stocks – bones, veggies, beef, and seasonings are allowed to get quite dark, which effectively magnifies the strength and breadth of flavor in the final product.

There are, of course, dueling origin stories for this legendary stuff. One popular version has Spanish cooks preparing the wedding meal for Louis XIII and Queen Anne, adding tomatoes, (introduced from Spain), to a typical French brown sauce. Another claims that the Bourbon kings time in Spain created the necessary amalgamation, and brought it back to France thereafter. However it appeared, Espagnole has never left, to our great benefit.

Making Espagnole is not terribly difficult, with one glaring exception – The true, classic version requires veal or beef demi-glacé – And that presents a bit of a catch 22. See, to make classic demi-glacé, you need – you guessed it – sauce Espagnole. Neat, huh? On top of that, you’ll also need somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 pounds of bones, a gallon of water, a quart of red wine, and many, many cups of prepped veggies – Oh, and 7 to 8 hours of cooking time to boot – Sound like fun? Actually, it is, and more importantly, making demi-glacé from scratch has much to teach us about patience, reduction, and chemistry, but that’s a lesson for another day. Therefore, we’ll need a sub or a reasonable cheat – fortunately, both are easy to come by, and either will work just fine.

The first option is a substitute, of which there are many. The current resurgence in home cooking has spawned a lot of gourmet accoutrements, and as such, bottled or boxed demi-glacé is abundant. That said, they’re not all created equally, so read your ingredients carefully – One of the most popular dried products includes all this bounty – ‘Wheat flour, corn starch, natural flavour, sugar, beef fat, salt, tomato powder, hydrolyzed soy/corn/wheat protein, monosodium glutamate, white wine solids, maltodextrin, onion powder, colour, guar gum, citric acid, spice, yeast extract, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, silicon dioxide and sulphites. May contain traces of milk ingredients.’ Yummy, huh?

If you’re of a mind to buy demi-glacé, I’ll recommend Williams-Sonoma. It’s not cheap, but it’s organic, and there’s no bullshit in it – It’s made right, from good stuff, hence the cost – That said, a little goes a long way, so it’s worth the splurge.

The second option is a cheat, and for my mind, this is your best bet. The version I like is what the venerable Julia Child called a “semi-demi-glace,” which cracks me up – Fact is, it works great, and is easy and quick to make. Here’s the drill.

Element Fe Forge and Ganesh Himal - Good stuff Maynard!
Element Fe Forge and Ganesh Himal – Good stuff Maynard!

Semi Demi Glacé
4 Cups Beef Stock, (homemade is best, good quality bought is fine)
2 Tablespoons Red Wine, (Burgundy does nicely)

In a heavy sauce pan over high heat, combine the stock and the red wine and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to the lowest setting you’ve got, and allow the stock to simmer gently for 3-4 hours, until the stock has reduced to roughly 1 cup in volume. When it’s done, the demi-glacé should nicely coat the back of a spoon.

Skim any scum that rises to the top off and discard.

Remove from heat and allow to cool in a non-reactive bowl.

Demi glace will last refrigerated in an air tight container for a couple of weeks. If you want to go longer, freeze it in an ice cube tray. Just pop out a cube to add to a sauce, and you’re good to go. For our use, we’ll reconstitute it in water – That may seem sort of silly, but all that reduction has changed the flavors mightily, so fear not. When you use demi-glacé in that manner, a ratio of 1:4 glacé to water will do the trick. You can adjust with more water or glacé as you see fit, of course.

OK, with that handled, it’s time to make the mother sauce.

Sauce Espagnole
Sauce Espagnole

Sauce Espagnole
4 Cups reconstituted demi-glacé concentrate
1/4 Cup Unsalted Butter
1/4 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Tomato Purée
1 medium Onion
1 small Carrot
1 stalk Celery
2 cloves Garlic
1 Bay Leaf, (Turkish is best, California is fine)
Pinch of Sea Salt
A few twists ground Pepper

Rinse, trim, and dice the onion, carrot, and celery.

Trim, peel, and mince the garlic.

In a large, heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add the butter and melt completely.

Add the flour and combine with a whisk. Cook the roux for 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the roux has a nice, brown color and a nutty smell.

Begin adding stock in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Let the roux absorb a dose of stock and reheat before adding more – I refer to this as not breaking the roux – it’ll start out like thick mashed potatoes and gradually get to the liquid sauce phase – Take your time and let that happen rather gradually.

Once all the stock has been added to the roux, toss in the veggies, including the tomato purée and stir to incorporate.

Add the bay leaf, and season with a pinch of sea salt and a few twists of pepper.

Reduce the heat to low, maintaining a bare simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 40 minutes more.

Remove the sauce from the stove, and carefully pour it through a single mesh strainer or chinoise, into a non-reactive bowl.

Allow to cool.

Rockin' my Ganesh Himal fair trade apron!
Rockin’ my Ganesh Himal fair trade apron!

So, what to do with this stuff? Well, how about those derivatives I mentioned up yonder? Bourguignonne is great for beef (or veggies if you tweak the stock – See below), sauce Charcutière is fabulous with pork, and sauce Africaine pairs wonderfully with chicken or veggies. Here’s how.

Sauce Bourguinonne
3/4 Cup dry red Burgundy Wine
3/4 Cup Stock (Beef is traditional, chicken or veggie are just fine)
1/2 Cup Sauce Espagnole
1/4 Cup chopped white button Mushrooms
2 Tablespoons diced Shallot
2 Tablespoons extra virgin Olive Oil
2 strips thick cut Bacon, diced
2 cloves Garlic, minced
4-5 leaves fresh Basil, (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 Turkish Bay Leaf (California is fine too)
1 sprig fresh Thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
Pinch of Sea Salt, a couple twists of Pepper

Combine basil, bay leaf, and thyme in a tea ball or tied into cheese cloth – This is a bouquet garni.

In a heavy sauté pan over medium high heat, add the oil and allow to heat through. Add the chopped mushrooms and sauté for 2-3 minutes until they’re soft.

Add the shallot and garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes until the garlic has browned.

Add the wine, stirring to break up the dark stuff attached to the pan. Sauté for 6-8 minutes, until the wine has reduced by roughly 50%. Add the stock and stir to incorporate.

Reduce the heat to low, maintaining a bare simmer. Add the bacon, a pinch of sea salt, and a couple twists of pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the sauce Espagnole and the bouquet, then increase the heat to medium, and stir to incorporate. Once a simmer has been restored, reduce the heat to low and whisk until the sauce is heated through.

Remove the sauce from heat, and pour through a single mesh strainer, into a non-reactive bowl, (discard the solids and the bouquet).

Serve hot.

 

Sauce Charcutière

2 Cups dry White Wine

1/2 Cup Sauce Espagnole
1/4 Cup diced Onion
2 tablespoons diced Cornichons
1 Tablespoon unsalted Butter
1 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Juice
1/4 teaspoon Sugar
In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions and sauté for 1-2 minutes until they soften, (but don’t let them brown).

Add the wine and heat through until it starts to simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer and cook until the wine has reduced by roughly 50%.

Add the sauce Espagnole and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Remove the sauce from heat, and pour through a single mesh strainer into a non-reactive bowl.

Add the mustard, lemon juice, sugar, and cornichons, stir to incorporate.

Serve hot.

Sauce Africaine
2 Cups dry White Wine
1/2 Cup Sauce Espagnole
1/4 Cup diced Tomato
1/4 Cup diced Onion
1/4 Cup diced green bell Pepper
2 Tablespoons extra virgin Olive Oil
1 clove minced Garlic
4-5 leaves fresh Basil, (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 Turkish Bay Leaf (California is fine too)
1 sprig fresh Thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
Pinch of Sea Salt, a couple twists of Pepper

Combine basil, bay leaf, and thyme in a tea ball or tied into cheese cloth – This is a bouquet garni.

In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat add oil, and heat through. Add the onion and pepper and sauté for 2-3 minutes, until the onion is starting to turn translucent. Add the tomato and garlic! and sauté for another minute or two, until they’ve softened.

Add the white wine, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to maintain a low simmer. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until the wine has reduced by roughly 50%.

Add the sauce Espagnole, stir to incorporate, and allow to return to a simmer.

Reduce the heat to the low, add the bouquet garni, and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Remove the sauce from heat, and pour through a single mesh strainer, into a non-reactive bowl, (discard the solids and the bouquet).

Season with salt and pepper, and serve hot.

A NOTE TO OUR READERS –

I’m sure you noted that I did what is commonly referred to as a product plug a couple of times in this post. In the words of Tricky Dick, let me say this about that…

We enjoy a steady readership of something over 10,000 genuine visits a week here. We’ve been picked up by sources as cool as the Basque national tourist board for our work, along with followers from all over this blue marble.

As such, we’ve been approached about things like getting paid for ads, getting free products in exchange for reviews, (with implied favorability, of course), and other stuff from which we could actually generate income from our work here. Fact is, we don’t accept any of those offers and never will.

This is a labor of love, plain out and simple. When we plug or recommend something, it’s because we tried it, own it, like it, and think maybe you will too. We’ve never been compensated for that and will never be. That’s simple not what we’re about. We’re about passion for sourcing, cooking, and preserving great food, and passing those things on to y’all.

Element Fe Forge made all our knives, and for the record, we bartered a little and paid for the rest. Ganesh Himal Trading Co. is the long-term effort of a dear friend to see that folks from Nepal are treated fairly, and you can’t ask for better motivation than that. If you like these things, look them up and honor them with your business.