We love ribs, especially when M does them up. This time around, we decided to do something we don’t do very often – a wet treatment, as opposed to a dry rub – Our usual go to. A citrus fennel glaze is what we came up with.
The sauce is the star here, and for good reason. It’s a grade A example of the organic way M and I arrive at a dish, based largely on what we’ve got on hand, and often initiated by a single thing – In this case, a left over blood orange was the spark – a leftover that had given up its zest for an earlier meal.
Initially, we were leaning toward a Chinese style rub, then veered off on a tangent. M found that blood orange and wondered aloud if we couldn’t do something with that. A short brainstorming session yielded what you see herein. This sauce could be used on a lot of things, from chicken or beef, to Brussels sprouts or carrots.
While this might seem like alchemy, I assure you, it’s not. Often, when we’re brainstorming things, I’ll whip out our copy of The Flavor Bible, a book that you aughta have in your kitchen, if you don’t already. You’ll find a wealth of parings and affinities therein that truly can and will spark your imagination and creativity.
And I can’t stress enough to be bold in endeavors like this – If you like stuff, and you think that stuff might go well together, then try it. If you’re at all nervous about committing to a full blown recipe, then cut off a little piece of this and a little piece of that, pop them your mouth, and see what you think. If it’s good, go with it. If it’s not, search elsewhere. That, in a nutshell, is how you build your own ideas into culinary reality.
We used a rack of spare ribs, but you can do any cut of rib you like, (Baby Back, St. Louis, Rib Tips, County Style, or beef ribs.)
Preheat oven to 250° F and set a rack in the middle slot.
Season ribs with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, (we use our go to seasoning salt for pretty much everything).
Wrap the ribs tightly in aluminum foil, fat side up and dull side of the foil facing out.
Set the package on a baking sheet, or the bottom of a broiler pan, and cook low and slow for about 2 hours, until the rib meat is very tender.
Juice from one fat and happy blood orange.
1/4 Cup Orange Marmalade
1/3 Cup chopped fresh Fennel bulb
2 small cloves Garlic
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco chile flake, (Use any chile variety you like here)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot.
Remove ribs from oven, set a rack on a high slot, and increase temperature to 375° F.
In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt butter, then add fennel and sauté for a couple minutes until it has notably softened.
Add garlic and sauté another minute until raw garlic smell dissipates.
Reduce heat to medium low.
Add orange juice, marmalade, and chile flake, stir well to incorporate.
Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes, until the sauce is quite liquid, (that’d be the marmalade relaxing a bit.)
Add half the arrow root and stir to incorporate. Allow the sauce to cook for another minute or so. Sauce will thicken slightly – Add the rest of the arrow root if you want things a bit thicker.
Unwrap the ribs, and flip them meat side up onto the pan. Baste or pour sauce liberally onto the ribs in an even layer.
Return the ribs to the oven on the high rack, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and starting to caramelize.
We served ours with an gratin potatoes, a lovely green salad, and fresh, crusty bread. They were falling off the bone tender, and the sauce was a perfect foil to the richness of the meat.
So this writing day falls on my birthday – number 59 in fact.
It’s been an incredibly weird and stressful week at work, not in a bad way, but because of just mind blowing circumstances. That topped off today with a long visit from my boss and his boss – Which turned out to be a ‘Great visit’ according to both of them, and therefore, according to me too.
That said, I was the only manager in café until after well after 3 pm, and it took about that long to find somebody else to shut ‘er down tonight – Like I said, very weird circumstances indeed.
In any event, I just got home at around 5, finally got a shower, and am now sitting on the couch with a dog, a cat, and a very nice glass of red wine.
I’m gonna ask M to bring us some dinner home from in town, and watch some baseball on the tube with my family.
I’ve had happy birthday wishes from literally hundreds of folks, and I need to get down to saying thank you for those.
Therefore, in so many words, this is all y’all get from me this week! Cook well, love one another, and I’ll be back next week.
Steve Sando runs Rancho Gordo, our go to bean purveyor. He also speaks his mind in a way I particularly enjoy.
His most recent newsletter included a ‘rant’ which resonated with me – he wrote,
‘You may not realize it but as time marches on, we home cooks are becoming rarer and rarer. The fact that we get excited about a new bean, a cooking pot, or even a new wooden spoon, puts us in the minority. Most of us think of cooking as fun and a great way to bring people we care about together. We see a pound of beans and we imagine how we’ll be cooking them, how we’ll be serving them, and maybe the smiling faces that will be eating them. I have a constant vision of leaving the kitchen and walking towards the dining room table with a huge pot of something good between my hands as I ask for help finding a trivet. This is possibly my favorite moment of the day. I try and do it most nights.
A meal kit is fine. A frozen dinner is an emergency. A dinner out is fun and sometimes inspirational. But a refrigerator full of cooked beans, roasted vegetables, stocks and broths, pickles and condiments, is like a palette waiting to be put to use to create something new.’
Notice that the title of the newsletter was, You Are Not Normal – So I gotta ask, do you think that’s true? Does Steve’s rant resonate with you, too? The thought that struck me most was his first line, ‘You may not realize it but as time marches on, we home cooks are becoming rarer and rarer.’ Do you think this is true? If so, it’s a very sad state of affairs.
It was also not lost on me that this mornings check of social media found an unusual volume of politics, doom and gloom news, and general negativity. When that’s the case, finding something positive, something genuinely wholesome and good to focus your energy around is a critical process – If we don’t, we drown. As far as I’m concerned, that really aughta be cooking great food at home for those we love – If not doing that is ‘normal,’ I want nothing to do with normalcy.
If that last thought seems shallow to you, I respectfully disagree. When I do orientation for new hires in the café, I tell them a story about how they’re going to be at work one day, and they’ll come back to the line and exclaim, ‘man, I don’t see how somebody can get that worked up about a sandwich.’ Then I tell them why it happens – it’s because people deal with overwhelming waves of crap all day, and they think, ‘I’m gonna go to the café and get my favorite thing to eat, and for a time, all will be right with the world,’ – And if we screw that up, it cuts deep. Food is closer to the heart for humans than dang near anything else.
Secondly, what we eat has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing, spiritually, mentally and physically. We must eat well to thrive, and that’s especially so when times suck. Highly processed food, fast food, junk food – All that is poison when you’re feeling down. What’s called for is healthy, fresh stuff, made with love, at home.
A friend posted this on FB, ‘When you notice your mental health declining, do one small thing that brings you peace. Take a shower, text a loved one, step outside. One little step is all you need to remind yourself that this is not permanent.’ And that’s key – Sure, grilled cheese is just a simple sandwich – But when you’re feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, the process of making and sharing a delightfully crunchy, melty creation with family or friends, in the warmth and comfort of your own home, is exactly what’s needed to reestablish balance.
And what are we teaching our kids and grandkids, if we don’t cook at home, regularly and with love? That sustenance is just a thing to be shoveled down, and nothing more? What a sad thought. Food is life, sharing great food is love, and without that, we perish, literally and figuratively. When schools no longer teach Home Ec, who will if we don’t? Who will pass on family favorites, comfort food, and the will and desire to explore exotic culinary worlds? If we don’t do it at home, Steve’s right, and a critical skill and joy in life is extinguished. It’s already happening in this country, more so than most others, and that trend absolutely must be reversed.
I don’t think it matters what you make, or how often you make it. It certainly doesn’t matter if it’s simple or complex. It probably won’t be ‘restaurant quality,’ and that’s likely a very good thing. What matters is that you come home, decompress for a bit, maybe have a glass of wine – And then you go see what’s what in your fridge and pantry. I hope that, when you check out that palette, you find stuff that makes you think, ‘I dunno if that’ll really work or not, but… what the heck, let’s take a swing at it.’
Do that with love. Repeat same the next night, and the next, and so on for most nights. Find some peace, share a meal, teach your kids and grandkids those passions. That’ll do much to bring the balance back.
M and I are on our second year of a tradition I’m liking very much – Since we live within rock throwing distance of the Canadian border, we go up for a few days the week before Christmas. It’s a good time, sort of a ’tween holidays lull. Last year was just a quiet trip to Harrison Hot Springs, which is lovely and quaint and very relaxing indeed. This year, we chose a different route, one that was guided by food as much or more as any other criterion.
Sure, we all eat when we travel, and often enough, it’s a focus, but what came to mind for us was going to Vancouver B.C. specifically for two things – First, to eat some great Asian food (and spark our own creativity thereby), and secondly, to do a recon cruise through Chinatown, maybe pick up some supplies.
We chose a nice hotel, smack in the middle of the West End, a relatively bohemian chunk of the city. Rents and incomes are middle of the road here. Roughly bordered by Stanley Park to the northwest, Chinatown and Gastown to the east, Vancouver harbor to the north, and Granville Island to the south, the West End is home to lots of art, great food, and plenty of sidewalk entertainment, (as in, just soaking up the vibe). There is marvelous, flowing diversity in the people, food, commerce, and art.
Our hotel was the Listel, which was remarkable affordable given the obvious quality therein. They pride themselves on abundant art throughout the place, their environmental concern and awareness, (which is palpable – No plastic anything in the room, recycling containers, solar power generation, to name but a few), and their food, which for us was hot and cold. We ate at the Timber restaurant, where the staff and service were once again excellent, but dishes were hit and miss. The calimari and chicken wings were delightful, while the cheese dip and shore lunch were not so much – The dip itself was great, but the crackers and potato skins provided there with were not done at all well, and the fish, while obviously quality, came to us soggy and a bit tired. That said, room service breakfast was truly excellent – The eggs were obviously top notch, and I’d be excited about the Benedict wherever I was eating, but especially so in bed on a lazy Monday morning!
Our room faced an adjoining high rise apartment building, which initially might seem disappointing, but the fact is, this is how and where people live here, so it should be embraced – Families doing their thing, a hairless kitty in the window checking out the gulls – it was all rather nice. The staff and the people in general were remarkably friendly. The rhythm of the area varied from absolutely hopping when we arrived on a rainy Sunday afternoon, to comfortably relaxed on a weekday. The Listel has valet parking for an additional fee, (about $30 a night), which includes unlimited access when you want your ride. Staff were happy to offer good honest advice on destinations, including where not to park in Chinatown, (avoid parking garages where your vehicle isn’t in plain sight of the street).
Neither M or I had been in Vancouver for literally decades, so some broad exploration was in order. We started with Chinatown, which may have its share of touristy kitsch, but is still vibrant and genuine for the folks who live there. There is plenty of great food and some wonderful shops throughout, (like the original Ming Wo Cookware building, a truly scary place, in a good way). We sought advice from a knowledgeable resident, with an eye toward food that the locals buy and eat – He strongly recommended T & T Supermarket. There are three of these in Vancouver – we chose the one smack in the middle of Chinatown, at 179 Keefer Place, (there was ample street parking nearby on our weekday visit).
First off, yes, this is a grocery store, but it’s certainly not your average one. We’re used to seeking out high quality ingredients when we shop at home, and to do that we visit a litany of smaller specialty shops and markets. This place has it all under one roof, (and our guide had been absolutely correct – we were part of a very small handful of non-Asian shoppers.)
The differences here lie chiefly in variety and quality. From staples like noodles, rice, flour, and oil, to incredible varieties of very fresh seafood, meat, and produce, T & T is stunningly good – If I lived here, this is where I’d shop, and in light of that, we’re already planning for our next stay to have cooking facilities so that we can do just that. On this recon trip, our purchases were kept to Christmas treats for the granddaughters, some wonderful dried noodles, and a bottle of aged black vinegar – You can bring quite a variety of personal use food items back to the States, and there’s a good resource for that here.
On the way out of Chinatown, we decided to cruise Gastown, and thought about stopping for a beer and a bite, but despite the outward charm, we found it all a bit too trite and decided to head back to the West End. Across from our hotel there was a little hole in the wall noodle place, Ramen Danbo, that always had a line in front of it, and often, a really long line. When we arrived, there were only four people out front, so we decided to go for it. There are two in Vancouver, one in Seattle, and one in NYC, augmenting the 20 shops throughout Japan. This one has only 28 seats, which explains some of the constant line, but not all – The lions share of that is due to the fact that this is really good ramen – Fukuoka style Tonkatsu, from the southern end of Kyushu, to be precise.
Naturally, good quality, fresh noodles are critical to ramen, and these guys certainly have those, from thin to thick, and soft to firm, as you please. As with all great soups, though, it’s more about the broth and the base. Tonkatsu is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of Japanese ramen variants – it’s a complex, involved dance, indeed.
First off, there’s the all important broth, that sublime elixir. It tastes simple as can be, and it may be, in terms of ingredients, but it’s sure not in terms of preparation. Traditionally, this is made from is pork trotters or knuckles, either split lengthwise, or whacked with a hammer to release the marrow, along with a few chicken feet, which add some serious protein, calcium, collagen, and cartilage to the mix, (AKA, some stuff that’s good for you, and some serious unctuousness). Add aromatics, (onion, garlic, ginger, leek, scallion), and finally, some fresh fatback, and then boil the shit out of it – In traditional circles, for as long as 60 hours, and you get this stock – Well, sort of anyway. Fact is, there is some seriously finicky cleaning called for to get broth as pretty as the stuff we ate at Danbo. Everything from those bones that isn’t white or beige has to go, or what you’ll get is a mud colored, albeit tasty broth, so some serious washing and nit-picky cleaning is in order. Unlike French stocks, this stuff is not clarified and filtered extensively before it’s served. With a bone broth cooked for as long as tonkotsu is, not only do you generate a bunch of gelatin, but virtually every other constituent gets into the act as well – fat, marrow, calcium from the bones themselves – All this stuff is why it’s so stunningly good.
Next comes the soup base. There are several primary Japanese variants – Tonkatsu, miso, shoyu, and shio – and Danbo does versions of all of those. Their signature base is ‘ramen-dare’, and they’re tight lipped about what’s in it – They say, and I quote, ‘our ramen-dare soup base is imported from Japan, made from select natural ingredients, and despite having low sodium, is filled with umami extracts.’ This apparent obfuscation is neither nefarious nor unusual, by the way. Like many signature ingredients, soup bases are closely guarded in Japan, so it’s next to impossible to discover exactly what’s in there. I sure don’t know what fuels Danbo’s dare, but I’d take a stab at kombu, plenty of shiitake, a little bonito, and a little shoyu – The Shiitakes would be the likely culprit for adding serious umami without a lot of sodium. As dark as the stuff looks in their menu pic, might be the possibility of deeply caramelized aromatics as well, (heavy on the onion, garlic, and ginger). The base is generally added to the broth in a ratio of around a tablespoon to a bowl, (or less, given how lightly colored theirs is when it hits the table.)
Topping off Ramen Danbo’s offering is a little spoonful of red sauce – They call it tare, and all they’ll tell us is that it’s, ‘Togarashi red pepper powder mixed with Chinese spices and medicinal ingredients, this top-secret mixture brings out the flavour, umami, and full-bodied taste of our ramen,’ which significantly downplays what this stuff likely is – I’d guess that what we have here is a spin on classic Tonkatsu Master Sauce – a complex, heady mix of onion, tomato, garlic, apple, sake, kombu, hot chiles, and most if not all of the warm spices from Chinese five spice – Sort of a Japanese swing at Worcestershire sauce, (and some cooks put that into the mix, too). It is, in other words, seriously concentrated flavors, mouth feel and a decent punch in a very small package – Maybe a teaspoon crowns your bowl.
Put all that together and you’ll be staring, glassy eyed, wowed, and very contently, at a mostly empty bowl if you’re me. Or you might be like the guy who sat next to us taking advantage of the kaedama offering – Additional helpings of noodles, which he did for a grand total of five servings – And He was a skinny little guy, too – Some guys get all the luck.
Recently, I shared a post on social media I got from my Cuz, Sally Stanton Poutiatine, about a great Chef doing a great deed in post hurricane Puerto Rico. Chef José Andrés went to the devastated island and initially began cooking for doctors and nurses, “because no one was feeding them.” But persistent calls for more help poured in, and Andrés couldn’t ignore them. He ended up coordinating 18 kitchens, serving over 150,000 meals a day. Andrés was named the James Beard Outstanding Chef of the Year, as well as Humanitarian of the Year in 2011 for this stunningly lovely gesture.
That story prompted another friend, Bryan Lee, to mention world famous Chef Massimo Bottura’s reaction to the devastating 2012 earthquakes that ravaged the area around Modena, Italy, home to balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The earthquakes damage included 360,000 wheels of the famous cheese – Over $200 million dollars worth, enough to fatally cripple the industry. What could one Chef do that would actually make a dent in such a disaster? Bottura gave it a think, and came up with risotto cacio e pepe, a play on the legendary pasta dish – But Massimo’s version used Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of the traditional pecorino, and rice instead of pasta, (because the affected region also heavily depends on rice production for its economic well-being.) a fundraiser was arranged, and the recipe was shared widely on social media. The result? The dish went ballistic across the culinary world, and “All 360,000 wheels were sold,” Bottura proudly told the TV show A Chef’s Table, “They were sold out. No one lost a job. No cheese maker closed the doors. That was a recipe as a social gesture.”
Alright, you say, very nice, very noble – But what’s this got to do with us home cooks? The simple answer is this – If you want to be a great cook at home, then damn near everything.
Before we get after the specifics of why, lets dig in a bit more to those Pro’s doing great deeds. In both these instance I cited, Chefs who were running a single restaurant waded into a much more dire situations, natural disasters of epic proportion. If you don’t know how professional kitchens and chefs work, this might seems deeply strange – What the hell would some milquetoast food dude know about dealing with things normally handled by major departments of federal governments, anyway? Turns out, quite a bit, and the reason for that is chaos. It’s not coincidental that cooks know all about chaos, and frankly, that’s everyone from Andrés and Bottura to home chefs – It’s just that chaos in a professional kitchen is exponentially more stunning than it is in ours.
My little cafe is a good example, even though in the big picture view of professional kitchens, it’s frankly peanuts. Nonetheless, we do north of four million dollars in business annually, and that happens at around fifteen bucks a pop. So, do the math for a busy weekend like this past one – Veteran’s Day weekend down here and a three day weekend for our Canadian pals – That adds up to lunches running up to $2,000 hours, and maybe three or four of those a day for three days. We’ll turn the restaurant a bunch during that service, meaning a new party takes over table X, in a cafe that’ll hold around 190 folks at a pop. Our goal is for you to be fed in under five minutes, from the time you order until food hits your table, and all it takes to screw that up is for one of us to have a hard time for a minute or two – Running out of an ingredient, a complex order, something small like that – When it happens, its called, in polite company, being in the weeds, (albeit the French term is dans le merde). It sucks, and it escalates in a heartbeat, and it can be really hard to get out of in anything resembling short order, but get out if it we must, and get out of it we will, because that’s what we do.
The way you deal with chaos in your kitchen determines how you’ll do when it happens. Handling it is part of the profession, and in the blood of good chefs. If you ever walk into your cafe seriously thinking, ‘I know exactly what’s going to happen today’, you’re either delusional or crazy. Even when the shit hits the fan, the good ones figure out, quickly, what needs to be done and how to do it. And frankly, it doesn’t matter to us whether it’s a kitchen, or a hurricane, or an earthquake – Disaster is disaster, and we know all about that. Andrés answered it perfectly when asked how he’d done what he’d done in Puerto Rico – He said, “Restaurants are chaos and chefs — restaurant people — we manage chaos very well. After a hurricane, you see a lot of chaos, and people go hungry and people go thirsty. But what we are very good at is understanding the problem and adapting. And so a problem becomes an opportunity. That’s why I think … more and more you’re going to be seeing more chefs in these situations. We’re practical. We’re efficient. And we can do it quicker faster and better than anybody.” I spent twenty years as a firefighter and a cop before I returned to food as a profession – I know exactly what he means, and he’s absolutely correct.
And so it comes to us in the home kitchen. Yes, what I described above is epic, but truth be told, a major screw up in the home is no less traumatic for the cook. The burned roast, radically over-salted home canned pickles, over cooked beans turned to mush, or the dreaded fallen soufflé has flattened many a cook – So what to do?
First and foremost, change your attitude, gang. What’s called for is a healthy dose of chutzpah, like we walk into our kitchens with every day. This is your kitchen, and come hell or high water, it’ll still be yours – Own it, warts and all. This is, frankly, the most important thing you can do towards becoming a better cook. This is your stage – Even if you flub your lines, if you do it with panache, nobody will know. Remember Julia Child throwing some failure over her shoulder and warbling, ‘Oh well – onward!’ That’s what I’m talking about. If it was easy, everybody would do it, and you know as well as I do that they don’t.
Secondly, embrace failure. If you never fail, you’re not pushing yourself near hard enough, and you’ll never be a better cook than you are now. You have to screw things up sometimes, especially if you’re experimenting. Expect it, accept it, learn from it, and make the next attempt, if not absolutely right, then that much better. If y’all saw how many things we boot before a recipe hits these pages, you’d be shocked – The difference is, I know it’s going to happen from time to time and I’m cool with it, because I always learn from my kitchen mistakes, and a rarely, if ever, repeat them – And that’s just what you’ll do too.
Third, expect chaos. Any time, in any situation, it can and will happen, and probably with the dish you’ve done a hundred times and are now doing for your new in laws. To paraphrase what I wrote above, if you walk into your kitchen thinking you know exactly what’s going to happen next, sorry, but you’re kinda nuts. Expect the unexpected, and don’t be surprised if that includes worst case scenarios. If you’re ready for anything, you won’t panic, you’ll think, do some quick research, and you’ll find a working solution. It may mean going to Plan B or C or D, but you’ll find a solution, because that’s what we cooks do.
So, there’s the drill. And for the record, pull the burned roast out, get rid of the pan, cut any burned stuff off the roast, re-pan it, add some water, and move on. For the pickles, remove about half the brine, replace that with water, and let them have a good soak for a couple of hours until everything tastes right again. Turn the overdone beans into dip, maybe with some toast points or pita bread. And if the soufflé has really fallen, well hell – Serve that sucker up and call it a pudding or a fondue – This is your stage, and none shall be the wiser.
Let’s just address the elephant in the room, right off the bat – Beans are not exactly what one would call sexy food, right? Well, were we talking about the decidedly pedestrian offerings we’re all too used to seeing out there, I’d agree. Yet, when you consider what a little outfit based in California has been quietly doing for beans lately, the answer is a resounding, wrong – Because Rancho Gordo is making beans sexy again.
Back about a decade or so, I discovered Rancho Gordo and some truly amazing beans. No, seriously – Truly amazing beans. We’re talking the kind of beans that you try a couple of after they’re just done cooking, and then you raise an eyebrow, and then you try more, all the while thinking, ‘damn! Those are outstanding!’ – Beans that good. Then I kinda forgot about them, for who knows what reason, until just recently, when we were reunited. In the meantime, Steve Sando and the Rancho crew had gone from harvesting a few thousand pounds a year to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and many, many more varieties. What John Bunker has done for apples in Maine, Sando is doing for beans. NOTE: When I asked Steve what their current production was, he wrote, “A lot!We’re in the middle of planning and we’re not sure where we’ll land.”
Sando wasn’t an agricultural expert, by any sense of the words, when he started this endeavor. He’d been, in fact, a web designer, DJ, and clothing wholesaler who happened to like to cook. He also lived in Napa, one of the lushest areas for food and wine one could wish for. Yet when he headed out one day in search of good tomatoes, he found… Crap. Nada – Nasty, hard, hothouse tomatoes from Holland were the best thing in sight. Since he was already an accomplished Jack of All Trades, he decided to take a swing at growing heirloom tomatoes and other veggies he’d like to cook with. Eventually, that lead to beans, and therein was made a match in culinary Heaven. Sando and crew have, in fifteen years or so, gone from humble origins to major stardom in the foodie world, with luminaries like Thomas Keller using Rancho Gordo beans in his restaurants, and an heirloom variety named after Marcella Hazan.
If you haven’t read the recent New Yorker piece on Sando and Rancho, do. It’s a wonderful vignette of the work they do, searching out new-to-us but old bean varieties, and bringing them to the rest of us. As Rancho Gordo grows, so does the search – That has spread throughout the Americas, from modest beginnings in California, through Mexico, and in to South America, (with inroads to Europe, including that Marcella bean, which naturally has Italian roots.) Their Rancho Gordo Xoxoc Project teams them up with a very fine Mexican outfit, to bring stunningly good heirloom Mexican beans to the markets up here in Gringolandia.
Oh, those beans! Seriously! We’re not talking flaccid plastic bags full of dullness – we’re talking rock stars, peacocks, a veritable rainbow of delights for the eye and stomach. Go to the Heirloom Bean Page on Rancho Gordo’s website and you’ll see, currently, thirty varieties that shine and sparkle. There’s no dullness here – There are glowing tones of red, black, white, cream, and purple – Shining solids, stripes, and blends. Let me assure you that these gems look every bit as good in person, even after they’re cooked.
And cook them you must, my friends. Yes, although I sound like a broken record, they are better than ‘that good.’ That’s important for a couple of reasons. First off, meatless meals are a thing we need to do more often. The world grows smaller as we continue to overpopulate it. Meat takes a hell of a lot of energy to produce, rather ridiculous amounts, truth be told. When we consider how and what and who produces food these days, things get grimmer yet. Up through most American history, well over 50% of the people lived in rural areas and were involved, in some degree, with farming and producing food. That figure is now around 1%, and ya can’t get a hell of a lot lower than that. Secondly, as agricultural area diminishes, or is generally overrun by huge corporate farming, diversity suffers foremost – That’s the reason why a visit to your local grocery finds those boring bags of industrial beans. Just as apples have rebounded, (leading to far greater availability of what were niche varieties), beans need to make that leap too, right into our gardens.
Beans are members of the legume family, which includes other such notables as peas, clover, and the lovely lupines that Monica planted out in front of our new digs this spring. Legumes have a great trick, a symbiosis with rhizobia, a common bacteria that are capable of fixing nitrogen, so long as they have a suitable host – Legumes provide that, so rhizobia settle into the plant’s root nodes and good things result. Instead of depleting soil, they enrich it. Fact is, planting beans or field peas at the end of your garden’s annual sojourn, (AKA, late fall), will not only help stabilize soils during the wet months, it’ll provide your next round of crops with a decent nitrogen fix, if you cut them down before they flower in the spring.
And for the record, Rancho Gordo not only approves of, but encourages home cultivation – Right there at the top of the Heirloom Bean Page, it reads, ‘Heirloom Beans are open-pollinated seeds that can be planted and you’ll get the exact same bean. They tend to have a lower yield and can be much more difficult to grow but the pay off is in the unique flavors and textures that you don’t find with bland commodity beans.’ Hey, everybody needs to start somewhere, yeah? Why not start with the best? RG doesn’t stop there, by the way – Sando wrote, The Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide, which’ll provide all the knowledge you need – Just add horsepower.
Then there are the nutritional considerations. Beans provide ample calories in a high protein, low fat package, with a low glycemic index, that includes complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and a generous sprinkling of vitamins and minerals. The USDA recommends we eat 3 cups of legumes a week as part of a healthy diet, and beans ought to be your star player in that endeavor. Now granted, all of that ain’t worth a Hill of beans if you don’t like the taste of ‘em. If what you’ve been exposed to is the seemingly endless world of canned and highly processed, or dried, low quality crap, who can blame you? Trust me when I say that Rancho Gordo is here to save the day.
As I mentioned, these beans are so far above the norm, they’re downright stratospheric. Go online, and look up threads of folks discussing cooking and eating these little beasties – you’ll read, repeatedly, something to the effect of ‘I was snacking on them so much, I was worried I wouldn’t have enough left for the dish I’d intended to make.’ They’re not joking. The first time I cooked some since my reintroduction, I experienced exactly that. Those were Vaqueros, by the way, gorgeous little black and white beauties that make amazing chili, (and are perfect for the Pacific Northwest – Their nickname is Orca Beans). Damn near anything and everything you want to eat with them or cook them into will be amazing, and just like that, your bean aversion is alleviated.
And the labels, well, those are just a fun, campy kick in the ass, far as I’m concerned. Sando was a web designer, you’ll recall, and he certainly does have an eye for catchy. They’re instantly recognizable, and downright appealing, and yeah, that kinda stuff does matter. Remember those dull, boring bags at the store? Well, screw that – These are as fun to look as they are to eat.
Alright, so whataya make with these things, anyway? Well, as I alluded to above, the sky’s the limit. From just beans, to salads, dips, and spreads. Soups, stews, and chili, to cassoulet, pasta y fagioli, and chakalaka, everything you make, from super simple to legendary, will be outstanding. For my mind, the simpler you start with, the better. Let the beans speak to before you layer them into other stuff. I’m not kidding. Eating these with an extraordinarily light seasoning hand will show you exactly what I’m gushing about. Sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, a drizzle of very good olive oil, maybe a chiffenade of a single, fresh basil leaf – nothing more – Yes, they have that much flavor and character. Do that, and on the second round, you’ll know exactly what each one will shone at when you really turn it loose. Your second wave might be a lovely bean and wild rice salad for something cold, or red beans and rice for a hot dish. After that, dive into the longer, slower stuff.
Now, when you want to genuinely layer up, and make something that will show what Rancho Gordo beans can really do, I’ll offer this recipe up, the very first elaborate one I made after RGB’s and I got reacquainted. I did it in an Instant Pot, (AKA, the IP, a truly spectacular electric, programmable pressure cooker, if you’re not familiar with them.)I’ll recommend using one, because the primary benefit of an Instant Pot can be summed up as follows – The entire process can be done in that appliance, and the total cooking time is only 18 minutes, and that includes pre-cooking the beans, yet the finished dish will taste like you slaved away all day – Capiche? If you don’t have an IP, you can soak, parboil, or bake the beans first, (Type ‘Beans’ into the search box here and you’ll get a bunch of options in that regard), then you can slow cook them as you see fit.
1 Pound Rancho Gordo Vaquero Beans
1/4 Pound Pork (whatever version you’ve got on hand)
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Sweet Pepper, chopped
1/2 Cup Onion, chopped
1/4 Cup fresh Cilantro, chopped
1 to 3 fresh Serrano Chiles, cut into roughly 1/4” thick rings
1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
Garnish: Crema or sour cream, hot sauce, more cilantro, fresh lime, Pico de Gallo, and so on, si?
Add dry beans and 8 cups of water to the Instant Pot.
Set the IP to 8 minutes on Pressure and let ‘er rip.
I used precooked pork – Use whatever you’ve got, from ground, to whole, to bacon.
If your pork is uncooked, give it a quick sauté to just brown it and get rid of most of the pink. When that’s done, transfer it to a small bowl and let it hang out while you continue. NOTE: If you’ve got a fatty cut of pork, trim the lion’s share and reserve it – You’ll use it shortly.
After the pressure cycle is completed, allow the pot to stay on Keep Warm mode for 10 minutes, then carefully release the remaining pressure on the IP. Use a towel or hot pads to grab the cooking vessel, then drain the beans through a colander – It’s always a good idea to save the pot liquor, it’ll be great for soups and stews down the line, and it freezes well.
Return the cooking vessel to the IP and set it to sauté.
When the IP is heated, add the reserved pork fat, (a tablespoon of avocado oil will do if you don’t have fat).
Allow the fat to melt (or the oil to heat through), then add the onion, sweet pepper, garlic, and chiles, and sauté, stirring lightly, until the onions start to turn translucent.
Add the chicken stock, pork, beans, cilantro, and seasoning to the IP and lock the cover back down.
Set the IP for 10 minutes at Pressure and let it go.
When the pressure cycle is complete, press Cancel, and let the IP’s pressure bleed off through ‘Natural Release’ – It’ll be about 20-25 minutes before you can unlock the cover.
Give beans a quick stir, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired.
Serve with whatever accoutrements you desire, albeit you’ll not really need anything else…
NOTE: Because I always get asked, I always point out the following – No, I do not get any sort of endorsement deal/perks/freebies from anyone or anything I review or recommend. I bought my Instant Pot same as you, as I do my Rancho Gordo beans and other goodies, (and oh boy, do they have other goodies – Go to the site and poke around, for cryin’ out loud!)I recommend what I love, because I want to share it with y’all – It’s that simple.
The volume of my Rancho Gordo stash, (and no, that’s not all of it, gang…) should illustrate the fact that I love their stuff. If, when you get there, six bucks seems expensive for a pound of beans, believe me when I tell you, it’s not. You’ll get a couple of great meals from that bag, without having to add a lot of other expense – That’s not pricy, that’s well worth your money, and you’re helping maintain little growers all over the place, as well as genetic diversity – Both very good things.
I’ll also mention that I belong to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club, in which you get a big ol’ shipment 4 times a year for $40 a pop, which includes six bags of beans, plus another goody, (like red popcorn, hominy, or cacao, to name but a few, as well as free shipping for something else in that quarter, and a newsletter with great recipes. The club was closed at 1,000 members for quite a while, and then was recently expanded and reopened. If you really dig Beans, you’re a fool not to join. There’s also a FB group for the club, and there are truly spectacular recipes and dishes floating across that on a daily basis, including the incredible pizza bean dish.
Seriously, go check it out, and tell ‘em I sent y’all.
Well, I’ve already heard from some folks this morning that our little blog just became a bit more popular, and for that, I’ve got A Way With Words to thank, so let me flesh out that explanation a bit. If you’re not familiar with this wonderful show/podcast, I encourage you to become so. It’s the NPR ‘show about language and the way we use it,’ hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and it’s a genuine treat for word nerds like me. Folks call in with questions about words, word origins, slang terms, etymology, regional dialects, and much, much more – It’s delightful and fascinating stuff. So, to all y’all who have journeyed here for the first time after hearing this week’s episode, welcome! If this post wasn’t waiting for you when you got here, my apologies – This is a journey that began way back in late March, so it’s required a bit of juggling to get things coordinated. but hey, you’re here now, and for that we offer Big Thanks and a hearty welcome – Please do subscribe and enjoy!
Anyway, here’s how it all started. While researching the subject of today’s post, a Norwegian cookie called the Sanbakkel, Monica came across the ingredient, Caster Sugar. Now, I knew what that was from many recipes over time, but it was new to M. For the record, Caster (and sometimes caster) sugar is the British term for what we call baker’s sugar on this side of the Big Pond – It’s granulated sugar that’s notably finer than table sugar. It blends, dissolves, and integrates far better than regular old sugar, and as such, bakers and chefs dig it.
What I didn’t know is why it’s called caster sugar – A bit of research really didn’t give a lot of info, albeit it did reveal that the stuff used to be held in a sugar caster, (basically, a fancy shaker placed at table in the old days, where folks could cast it onto whatever the liked). The caster versus castor variant also piqued my interest, and there was virtually nothing I could find to explain that, so naturally, I called A Way With Words, and as fate would have it, I ended up on the show that was broadcast today. Rather than go too far into that rabbit hole, I’ll simply say, listen to the episode, and you’ll not only get a great fleshing out of the term caster, but you’ll hear yours truly as well –A win-win if ever there was one.
So I ended up on the show, and had an absolute gas. For the record, while I noted that we live on Lummi Bay, in the northwest corner of Washington State, I recorded my part on a bus headed from downtown New Orleans to the airport. Along the way, Martha and Grant were kind enough to ask the name of the blog, and, well – Here we are! Now, as I write, a batch of fresh sandbakkel are wending their way southward to the gang at A Way With Words with our fondest thanks – Therefore, on to those cookies, yeah?
Monica has a healthy dose of Norwegian heritage from her maternal side, so a cookie that reflected that is what we were looking for when we landed on Sandbakkels. These lovely, light little sugar cookies are also sometimes called sandbakelse, or sandkaker – The sand theme running though this speaks to the shortbread-like consistency of the finished product – Sand tarts, if you will. They’re a simple sugar cookie that yields best results when the ingredients are as fresh as you can get.
Sandbakkels are traditionally a Christmas season treat, but for my mind, they’re good, if not better, in the spring and summer time – More on that thought in a bit. In their purest form, Sandbakkel contain flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. Common additions include almonds or almond extract, vanilla bean or extract, and cardamom. For the latter while virtually no recipes I found specified what variant of cardamom gets used, I’d bet on it being green, freshly ground, as it’s the sweetest version, (versus black or Madagascar).
The coolest aspect of Sandbakkels, for my mind, is the use of small fluted or patterned molds used to bake the cookies – This leaves you with a wafer thin, delicate little treat that is wonderful all by its lonely, and for my mind, spectacular with fresh fruit, nuts, etc, (even if some Norwegians consider such additions blasphemous).
The first published recipes for Sandbakkel show up in mid 19th century Norwegian cookbooks, which indicates pretty strongly that they’d been around for a while prior – A point that A Way With Words often makes about stuff showing up in print. When Norwegians packed up to emigrate, they brought their Sandbakkel molds with them, and a delicious old country traditional was maintained. Such was the case for Monica’s Gramma, Palma Hoover (née Solvang), who came to the western side of Washington State and homesteaded in the Carnation Valley, back in 1907 – Palma was just six month old at the time, one of eleven siblings. There is some discussion about where and how Sandbakkels took hold back in Norway, but nothing definitive – They are, in all likelihood, a simple treat that spread because they’re pretty, fun to make, and delicious – All the reason any of us need to dig in, right?
Sandbakkels are quite simple, and as such, quality and freshness of ingredients is paramount. What I’m getting at is this – If I’m doing these for an event, then I’ll likely make butter from very fresh, local cream, and grind flour from fresh wheat – Now, you might call that extreme, and it may indeed be somewhat, but if you’re looking to produce your best, that’s kinda the level we go to. That said, making sure that the flour and butter you use is as fresh and good quality as you can get your paws on will do the trick.
So, find the freshest butter you can for starters. Then there’s the flour question. Most stores these days will offer bread and all purpose flours, and many will also have cake or pastry flours hiding somewhere. Keep in mind that as you descend through that list, what changes is the protein level they contain – Bread relies on good gluten development to be successful, and so the protein level in that flour is relatively high, as much as 14%. Down at the other end of the spectrum, pastry flour will have protein levels as low as 8% – What that means to us from a practical standpoint is this – If you want gluten development and chewy stuff like bread, you use bread flour, and if you want something delicate and flaky like a Sandbakkel, you’ll use pastry flour. Now, that said, if what you’ve got in your pantry is All Purpose Flour, don’t fret- AP usually weighs in around 9% to 11% protein, which means it’ll do just fine, if that’s what you’ve got – After all, we’re here to have fun and chow down, si? NOTE: check out our Flour Power post for more than you probably want to know about such stuff.
Now for the catch – Yeah, it’s those little Sandbakkel molds. If you’re doing these right, you need them. Fortunately, they’re cheap and widely available online, so grab a set – They pay back the minimal expense with lovely finished product, so it’s a worthwhile thing. When you get your molds, they’ll need to be seasoned once prior to use.
Seasoning Sandbakkel Molds.
Wash your molds with soap and water, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry.
Preheat your oven to 350° F.
Lightly grease your molds with leaf lard, then arrange in a baking sheet.
Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, then remove and allow to cool to room temperature. Wipe excess lard off the molds, and you’re good to go – The molds will provide a long life of easy releases thereafter.
So, on to the goods. This recipe will make about 4 dozen cookies. You can, if any survive, freeze them if you wish. Although they won’t be quite as yummy, of course.
4 Cups Pastry Flour (AP is just fine too)
1 1/2 Cups Unsalted Butter (If you use salted butter, just omit the additional salt listed below)
1 Cup Bakers Sugar
1 large Egg
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before proceeding.
In a non-reactive mixing bowl, add the butter and hand whisk for 2 minutes – You’re preparing the butter to accept sugar and go through the creaming process, so take the full time allotted, (And you certainly can use a hand mixer to do this work if you wish.)
Add sugar and salt to the butter and whisk to combine thoroughly, about 2 minutes. This is ‘creaming,’ wherein you’re introducing a bit of air to the dough, and helping the sugar to disperse thoroughly and evenly.
Add the egg and whisk to incorporate thoroughly – About 1 minute.
Add flour a cup at a time, whisking as long as you can, then switching to a kitchen spoon to finish the job. The dough should not stick to the bowl or your fingers when you’re done mixing, so adjust flour a pinch or two at a time, if needed.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough or 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 340° F, and set a rack in the middle position.
Even though your molds have been seasoned, it’s never a bad idea to grease them a bit more. Let a very little bit of butter melt onto your fingers, and wipe a light layer around each mold.
Pull off about 2 teaspoons of dough, (and if you have issues with portioning, feel free to roll out little 2 teaspoon balls before filling the molds), and press the dough evenly into the molds – Watch your thickness, as you want things nice and even – Avoid thick bottoms and thin sides, and don’t let any dough extend beyond the rim of the mold. And by the way, this is a gas for kids – Our Granddaughters dig it big time, and I’ll bet you’re will too.
Place molds evenly spaced on a baking sheet – Ideally, you want an inch or so of free space around each mold, so you will likely need to do multiple sheets or batches, (unless of course you’ve got a way sexier oven set up than I do, and if so, I salute you!)
Bake cookies at 340° F for about 10 minutes, then have a quick look – The upper edges of the cookies should be firm and light golden brown.
Remove sheets from oven and, using a hot glove or mitt, gently turn each mold upside down and place it on a cooling rack.
Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes, then carefully pick up a mold, still upside down, and place it just barely above the cooling rack – tap lightly on the bottom of the mold and the cookie will drop onto the rack.
Allow unmolded cookies to cool to room temperature. And yes, at this very point, the cookies will be warm and vulnerable – It’s entirely likely that several will lose their fragile lives right there and then – So be it…
Now, for a last bit of pure joy, consider this – As mentioned, I have Norwegian friends who absolutely consider anything, (and I mean anything), added to a fresh Sandbakkel as an act of sheer blasphemy. For the record, I am not Norwegian, (Scots, Welsh, and Dutch), and Monica has German and Cherokee blood as well – So, yes Virginia, we add stuff to ours, and we think you should too. This is why, point of fact, I think that these little gems were meant to be enjoyed when fresh, local fruit is abundant – A Sandbakkel filled with such stuff is an unbelievably delicious treat.
This also means that you might want to whip up a bit of crème fraiche, or perhaps whipped or pastry cream, as a bed for that lovely fruit to sit on. If the cream seems a bit heavy to you, then a lovely, light fruit glaze might be a nice option.
Fresh Fruit Glaze
3/4 Cup fresh Fruit Juice, (literally, whatever you like – Orange, grapefruit, apple, grape, etc)
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (honey is fine too, or bakers sugar, for that matter)
2 Tablespoons crushed Fruit, (whatever you’re filling the Sandbakkels with)
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot, (Cornstarch will do just fine, too)
2 teaspoons Citrus Rind, (lemon, lime, orange, as you see fit)
In a small, unheated sauce pan, combine fruit juice and arrowroot until thoroughly mixed.
Put the pan on the stove over medium heat, and add the agave and crushed fruit, whisk to incorporate.
Heat through, stirring steadily. Reduce heat to low and continue whisking until the sauce thickens notably, (it should evenly coat a spoon when quickly dipped in the glaze.)
Allow the glaze to cool to room temp, then drizzle or brush onto the fruit after arranged.
if you’re here often, you know I’ll occassionally address things other than food and cooking, and today is such a day – It’s May Day, and that used to mean more than it seems to now.
It’s serendipitous that the night before my Sis wrote the piece that follows herein, Monica was reminiscing about how her Gramma would have her cut flowers and take them ‘to the older neighborhood ladies,’ on May Day as well. As my Mom did with me, though I’d forgotten it until now.
The world is kind of a mess these days, especially here in the U.S.. It’s at times like this that simple, forgotten gestures of community and humanity can and do have far greater weight. Give a read and a think to Annie’s words, and maybe cut a few flowers of your own today. It’s a good day to feed our souls.
Making May Day Memorable
CHelping Community Blossom
Growing up in Massachusetts, May Day was definitely a day to celebrate. If it fell on a school day, we made paper cones or little baskets to take home. If not, we made them at home, filling them with simple flowers for our neighbors. These days, neighborliness seems like a quaint, outdated concept in far too many places. Programs like Welcome Wagon used to greet newcomers with baskets of homemade cookies, packets of tea, and gift certificates from local businesses. The practice was still going strong when we moved to our island home back in the mid 80s but like so many remnants of the old island community culture, it’s long gone. Now you get a few coupons from big box stores along with your postal change of address forms.
Since WWII, our national culture has made some profound shifts, moving steadily to the political right. We increasingly seem to prize privacy and individual rights over community and connection. Sadly, the erosion of community and connection underlies the enormous wave of addictions and violence that are wreaking havoc all over our country. There are compelling studies that indicate that the root cause of addictions, opioid or social, and of social terrorism, is not weakness of character but a disphoric sense of disconnection that can be exacerbated by trauma and major losses. When we are most in need of connection, we are apt to end up in a hospital or mental facility, usually with a constantly changing cast of caregivers.
Basic Community Building
Humans need to be in community yet we are rapidly losing critical social skills. Maybe screen time is part of the problem, but it can also be community building in some ways. Certainly international news travels at light speed these days, and social media makes international connections easy and effortless. I used to scorn Facebook, but I admit that I love checking in with various horticulture groups, seeing what’s growing in Juneau or Arizona or closer to home on Vashon Island or Portland; following international plant identification groups; getting glimpses of wildflowers in places I can’t get to in person; experiencing virtual garden tours around the world. I love being able to post a picture of a plant I’m not sure about and getting an almost immediate confirmation or clarification. Brilliant!
I also feel enriched when I’m gardening in public places and can meet people face to face. Real time interactions allow us to answer questions, explain how to grow this or that, demonstrate a pruning technique, or share a plant division. It also offers the chance to look someone in the eye, to hear their thanks or their ideas, and to engage in an actual conversation. Imagine! I especially love talking with our oldies, listening to their stories about gardens long gone, and learning more about this beautiful place where we both live.
Tomorrow I’m offering a workshop at the Senior Center, featuring May Day baskets as well as tips on container gardening and anything else people want to talk about. I’m making little paper cones and tussy mussies to hand out, hoping to spark some happy memories and hear some great stories. Our local Senior Center is a thriving, busy place, despite the fact that, these days, nobody wants to be identified as a senior. Actually, the older oldies don’t mind a bit, but a lot of Boomers really resent the label. It’s not just an island thing; when the long standing ElderHostel program was failing, the directors renamed it Road Scholars and today it’s a very successful, revitalized program with many younger members.
I’ve heard suggestions that we rename our Senior Center and I know that other communities are having similar conversations. Having long looked forward to crone status myself, I’m a little baffled. What happened to honoring our elders? Who wouldn’t want to earn that status? Maybe I’m especially blessed to know so many wise, compassionate, thoughtful, imaginative and adaptable elders but I doubt it. However, I do think that my good fortune might be increased because a few years ago I realized that I was going to a lot of memorial services and finding out that way too many people I “knew’ had fascinating lives I knew nothing about. As a result, I started spending a little more time asking questions and actually listening to the stories they sparked. It turns out that you can simply approach someone you know a little and say, “I’d love to know more about you. Please tell me some of your life experiences,” and get not rebuffs but rich and sometimes astonishing answers.
Listening With Intent
Maybe we Boomers can make peace with maturity if we explore the experiences of our oldies with open ears and minds. Perhaps it’s best to start building such refreshing relationships with people we enjoy but don’t know well. Family can be tricky: When the parent/child relationship shifts into caregiving, such opportunities may be increased, but depending on the personalities involved, they may also diminish. I was delighted to find that my daughter-in-law could get stories from my mom that my brothers and I had never heard (and never would have, for sure!). As a friend, I’ve in turn heard sometimes painful stories that weren’t to be shared with birth family folks.
I’ve heard some of the most eye-opening stories from church family. I belong to a free-spirited, open and affirming UCC church that’s full of marvelous people old and young with intriguing lives and lively minds. In that group, the deeper you dig, the richer the golden veins of viewpoints, stories and ideas. I’m finding the Senior Center to be another great place to connect with elders with wide perspectives and unusual lives. Ever since I moved to this island community, I’ve loved seeking out long time islanders and exploring the past by conversing with people who are still present. After thirty some years here, so many are gone and those who remain seem more precious than ever. So tomorrow I’ll hand out flowers and treasure the stories I glean in sweet return.
A friend turned me on The Plant Guide, a pretty cool site with some fine gardening tips and tricks. They also have a definite bent for the history of things, just as we do here, including a very cool bit on the origin and history of common veggies and fruit.
A fair amount of this falls into the not what you expected category, and can definitely lead to some interesting further exploration.