Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

We belong to a great local CSA outfit called Dandelion Organic. Even though we grow produce and preserve a fair amount of that, there are plenty of things we don’t have or can’t get in winter – That’s where an outfit like Dandelion really comes in handy. We crave fresh veggies in the dreary months, when supermarket fare is often less than stellar. Seeing a box of local, fresh produce really lifts our spirits, and it certainly sparks creativity in our kitchen. When M added a head of really gorgeous lettuce to our last order, she said ‘lettuce wraps,’ and I got busy.

Are you one who sneers at lettuce? If you’re of the opinion that lettuce, like celery, is a tasteless veggie, you’re not all that wrong – far too much of what we find in grocery stores is a pale shadow of the real deal. Like commercial apples not so long ago, what you find in stores is iceberg, romaine, and one or two varieties of leaf – they’re usually not local, and they’re not grown for taste – they’re made to travel and store well, and that’s why they generally suck. The image below underlines this trend. That’s a field of iceberg lettuce – Study that and ask yourself, when was the last time the iceberg you saw in the store looked like this?

A field of iceberg lettuce

Lettuce is a member of the daisy family – Asteraceae. It was first cultivated in Egypt around 3,500 years ago, grown for seeds that produce cooking oil, (and in some places still is). It was initially a plant 2 to 3 feet tall that looked like a mutant head of Romaine. Lettuce spread quickly, courtesy of the Greeks and Romans, and by the first century AD, had taken root across the known world. China leads world cultivation these days, by leaps and bounds in fact – And yes, it’s still grown in Egypt. There are six major cultivars – Leaf, Cos (Romaine), Crisphead (Iceberg), Butterhead (Boston or Bibb), Celtuce (Stem), and Oilseed. From those big branches stem hundreds of varieties, many of which are imbued with marvelous taste and texture – And you can grow many of them, so do – Make a salad from lettuces out your own garden, and you’ll know it’s wonderful stuff.

Common Lettuce Varieties

Lettuce, (and plenty of other leaves), have played a part in cooking and eating pretty much since us apes went bipedal – Food has been cooked in, plated on, served with, and wrapped in them – and still is. Little bites of meat, fish, poultry, or starchy vegetables wrapped in leaves, especially lettuce, is ubiquitous throughout Asian cuisines. I love such things, because you get a purer taste of what you’re eating than you would with something starchy, like bread, tortillas, pancakes, masa, or any of the other myriad sandwich wrappers employed – it’s also generally pretty darn healthy and remarkably tasty.

Celtuse, or Stem Lettuce

The challenge comes in finding lettuce strong and tasty enough to do the job. Romaine will work, but it usually tastes like cardboard. What you want is something from the Butterhead cultivar – a lovely head of Butter, Boston, or Bibb lettuce. These are robust enough to handle being stuffed, are far prettier than most other varieties, and taste great. They can be a bit pricier than simpler stuff, but if you get 12+ wrappable leaves out of a head, it costs about the same as dozen tortillas.

Butterhead Lettuce, AKA Butter, Boston, or Bibb

Chicken is a great protein for doing up an Asian inspired wrap dish, but so would fresh, firm tofu, fish, pork, or beef. If you use meat, it doesn’t have to be fancy – there’s a marinating step in this recipe, so even tougher cuts will get some time and help toward breaking down tougher tissues. A lot of the chicken lettuce wrap recipes out there advocate breast, but I do not – that is about the most expensive piece you can find, and the standard American white meat chicken breast hasn’t much flavor – yes, a marinade will help fix that, but why not use something that has some? Skin on, bone in thighs are the trick – Lots of flavor, cheap, and easy to prep – and a lot more authentic to boot.

As for that marinade – Rather than go for something point specific, I built a reasonably faithful mashup that holds true to regional cuisines and is a bit exotic to us Americans. Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisines all use soy sauce, albeit they have specific variations they prefer – those are worth checking out, as they’re quite distinct. Hoisin sauce also crosses several borders, it’s often thought of as a generic Asian barbecue sauce. Rice wine and sesame oil are ubiquitous as well.

Notes –

1. Since this is a marinating recipe, you’ll need to allow time for that.

2. I pickled or dressed some of the veggie filling options, because we like that sort of thing- you don’t have to if it doesn’t float your boat – I included recipes just in case, as well as for peanut sauce.

Urban’s Asian Inspired Chicken Thighs

Chicken and Marinade:

1 1/2 to 2 Pound Chicken Thighs (Bone in, skin on – if you go boneless/skinless, a pound is plenty)

1/2 Cup Light Soy Sauce, (as in, light versus dark, not ‘lite’ as in abomination)

1/4 Cup Hoisin Sauce

2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1-3 fresh Serrano Chiles

1” chunk fresh Ginger Root

2 fat cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 teaspoon Fish Sauce

Rinse, stem and dice chiles – you can field strip the membranes if you’re a heat weenie.

Peel and mince the garlic and ginger.

Combine everything but the chicken in a non-reactive mixing bowl, whisk to incorporate, and allow to marry at room temp while you prep the chicken.

Bone in, skin on chicken thighs – where the flavor is.

Remove skin and extra fat from thighs, then debone – the skin will pull off easily from one side, and the bones are mostly loose – a little careful paring will free them.

Field stripped chicken thighs

Toss your bones and skin into 6 cups of water with a little onion, celery, and carrot and you can simmer up some stock to have on hand for whatever – Most of the fat in chicken skin is unsaturated, BTW.

Cut the chicken into roughly 1/2” slices across the short side of each thigh.

Pack the sliced chicken into a bowl or storage container and pour the marinade over it – work it in so that everything is well coated. Marinate refrigerated for at least 2 hours, and 4 to 6 is even better.

Lettuce and Fillings –

10-12 leaves Butter Lettuce

1 Cup Mung Bean Sprouts

1 packed Cup Savoy or Napa Cabbage

1/2 Cup Carrot

1/2 Cup Sweet Onion

1 Cup cooked Thai cellophane noodles

1/2 Cup Roasted Peanuts, rough chopped

1/2 Cup Cilantro, rough chopped

Rinse and pat dry sprouts.

Slice cabbage into roughly 1/2” shreds. If you like this dressed, add 1 tablespoon of roasted sesame oil, and 2 teaspoons of rice vinegar, and toss to coat.

Slice carrot into roughly 2” matchsticks, and onion into 2” pieces

Pour boiling water over noodles in a mixing bowl and steep for a minute or so, until they’re al dente. Pour out hot water and rinse noodles with cold water, then drain. Place in a bowl with a teaspoon of avocado oil and mix by hand to coat the noodles.

Put the onions and carrots in a small non-reactive bowl, and add

1 Cup White vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Celery Seed

1/2 teaspoon Coriander

1/2 teaspoon Turmeric

Whisk with a fork to incorporate and let the mix marinate at room temperature

If you like peanut sauce, here’s my fave version –

1/2 Cup smooth natural, unsweetened Peanut Butter

2 Tablespoons Light Soy Sauce, (See above, not ‘lite’)

1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar

1 Tablespoon fresh Lime Juice

1-2 teaspoons Sriracha Sauce

2-3 Cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2” fresh Ginger Root

1-3 Tablespoons Warm Water

Peel, trim, and fine grate ginger and garlic.

Combine everything but the water and whisk with a fork to incorporate.

Add water, about a tablespoon at a shot, until you each the sauce consistency you like.

Allow to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving.

Sautéing Asian marinated chicken thighs

When you’re ready to eat, set all the fillings out in bowls so folks can load up at the table.

Separate lettuce leaves, then gently wash in cold water and pat dry with a clean towel. Arrange on a platter.

Pour out most of the marinade, but leave the chicken well coated, and some of the goodies too.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, sauté the chicken until fully cooked, stirring and flipping steadily, about 4-6 minutes. This is also a great thing to stir fry in a wok, if you’re of a mind.

Urban’s Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Transfer chicken to a serving platter, top with a few chopped nuts and some cilantro, and dig in.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

In 1972, my family spent a month touring Italy. We stopped, of course, in Perugia, where my older sister was studying abroad, at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. We stayed at a hilltop hotel with a rather large dining room. One night, Ma and Pa went out by themselves, and my older Bro and I had dinner there – That was the first time I experienced Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

The plates were, for a 12 year old, huge. A lady at the table next to ours showed us the right way to do things – grab some pasta with a fork, spin that into the bowl of your spoon, then pop that lovely stuff into your mouth. The stuff was stunningly good, and it became an instant favorite for me, but try as I might, I couldn’t finish. First the waiter looked appalled, and asked if I didn’t like it. I denied this, just said it was too much, but the process was already underway. Next came the head waiter, then the maitre d’, and finally, the Chef. With all these guys gesturing and beaming, I finished that damn plate. Ever since, I’ve been more judicious about my intake, and well that I should be – This is seriously rich stuff.

Carbonara is another of those fascinating dishes that are hard to pigeonhole. It’s a Roman thing, in all likelihood – and the locals have heartily embraced it as such. It’s delightfully simple, stemming from the pasta/cheese/pepper family of dishes, like cacio e pepe – maybe more like pasta alla gricia, since carbonara must have cured pork to be authentico. While the roots go way back, this is not an old dish. Carbonaro means ‘charcoal burner,’ and lead to the sobriquet, ‘coal miners pasta,’ but that is probably poetic license.

Carbonara appeared in Italy post World War II, because quite frankly, there was little or no eggs or bacon in that war torn collection of city states prior to the war. There was plenty of both afterwards thanks to the presence of American GIs and their vast supply stores. I think the Carbonara moniker came about because pepper and diced bacon kinda look like coal, if one is being imaginative. This line of reasoning is substantiated by the notable absence of the dish in Ada Bono’s seminal 1930 work, La Cucina Romana – If carbonara had been part of the scene, I guarantee it would have been in her book – and it did appear in Elizabeth David’s 1954 edition of Italian Food. In any event, Italians loved it, and so did the GI’s.

Like any seminal dish, there are a lot of potential rights and wrongs around making Carbonara, I mean come on – it’s Italian cooking, OK? In Italy, 90% of the time you encounter it the meat will be guanciale, the pasta will be spaghetti, the cheese will be Pecorino Romano, and the only other ingredients will be eggs, black pepper, and salt – anything else will be received akin to putting pineapple on their pizza.

Guanciale

Guanciale is worth checking out, but it can still be a bit hard to find here in the states. It is cured pork from the jowl or cheek, notably porkier and fattier than bacon or pancetta. The magic lies in the fat, which melts beautifully when it’s cooked, adding marvelous depth of flavor and mouth feel to a dish. Americans tend to use bacon for Carbonara, which is fine, really, especially if it’s really good bacon – sure they frown on this in Italy, but even pancetta can get you looked at funny over there. I think you should use what you like, but trying a cured pork product you’ve not had before should be on your dance card.

While the pasta you deploy doesn’t have to be spaghetti, it should be something with a hefty surface to volume ratio – that’ll allow the simple and relatively small amount of sauce involved to fully deploy. Folks have been known to double the sauce and use something like penne, and while that would technically be wrong, I’d snarf it down.

Pecorino RomanoParmigiano Regiano

The cheese should be Pecorino Romano, but if you like parmigiano regiano, use that – Just know that they’re very different things – Pecorino is a salty, sharp, almost smoky sheep’s milk cheese, while Parmesan comes from cows – it’s nuttier and funkier stuff.

If ever there was a dish that wanted the best, freshest eggs you can find, this would be it. The taste and the appearance of the dish depend on great eggs, because they constitute most of the sauce – a watery, pale supermarket egg is not going to make great carbonara. Most cooks use whole eggs, while some employ only yolks, and either is fine, really.

As far as other stuff in carbonara goes, everything I’m about to mention does not go into the dish according to purists, and I feel strongly that you try the traditional dish at least once – After that, do what you like – it’s your kitchen. Some folks deploy a little cream in their sauce. Veggies from peas to broccoli and leaks to mushrooms have made their way into the mix. One thing you must never, ever do, however, is buy and eat anything from the store called ‘carbonara sauce’ – knowing what is likely in that stuff to make it shelf stable, it should be obvious that it’s not something you want in your pasta.

Mise en place for Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 Pound Dry Pasta

4 Large Eggs

8 Ounces Guanciale, (Pancetta or bacon are fine too)

1/2 Packed Cup Pecorino Romano Cheese

1/2 Packed Cup Parmigiano Regiano Cheese

Fresh Black Pepper

Cut your pork into roughly 1/2” cubes.

Grate cheese.

Fill a large pot with 5-6 quarts of water, then add 4 tablespoons of kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat.

Add the spaghetti, allow the water to return to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a rolling boil.

Cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Boil pasta until it’s al dente, about 6-9 minutes.

In the largest skillet you’ve got, sauté the pork over medium heat until the fat is rendered out and the meat is crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat and slide the pan off of the burner.

Crispy pork for carbonara

Reserve 1 cup of past water, then drain the pasta into a colander.

Egg and cheese mix for carbonara

Crack the eggs into a small mixing bowl, then whisk – add the cheese and whisk to fully incorporate.

Slide the skillet back onto a burner on medium and let it heat back through for a minute.

Add the pasta and half the reserved pasta water and use a couple of forks to incorporate that with the meat and fat – a lot of the water will evaporate and that’s OK.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Pull the skillet off the heat again, then add the egg and cheese blend and the rest of the pasta water, and use the forks to quickly incorporate everything – work quickly to get the pasta coated with the egg and cheese mix, and take care that the eggs don’t sit on the bottom of the skillet and scramble – if you get a little of that effect, don’t worry – we’re all human, it happens, and it’ll still be delicious. It’s your kitchen.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Season the pasta liberally with fresh ground black pepper, take a picture, then portion onto plates or bowls and serve pronto. Every time I spin a fork full of this lovely stuff, I’m right back in that dining room in Perugia.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Italian Beef

Michael Whyte and I have been friends on social media for over 10 years. We are an example of what’s great about social media – we’re friends who wouldn’t have met otherwise. We keep track of one another’s lives, and I can say I have genuine affection for the man – Heck, I proudly wear one of his band t shirts. We met via music and guitars, although exactly how I do not recall, (and I doubt Mike does either). He lives in Rockford, Illinois, and I in Ferndale, Washington. We have not yet met face to face, although I hope to correct that. In addition to music and guitars, we share a love of family, community, and growing and cooking great food. We also both lost our Moms during the time we’ve known each other, and that’s where today’s post comes in.

Michael has pretty much been a musician his whole life, and I for most of mine. While I can sing and play, (even at the same time), and have a ridiculous volume of lyrics and guitar licks stuffed in my head, I’m sadly not much of a songwriter. Michael on the other hand very much is. He is currently part of the Blue Healers band in Rockford, so if you’re in the area, check it. We share a strong drive to create, often through music and writing. We’ve both worked blue collar jobs for most of our days, and prefer that – especially if it gets us outdoors. We both recall our childhoods with affection, and a fair share of those memories focus on food and gardening.

My Mom was born Marjorie Jean Langston in 1923, although she never used her first name. She was raised in Billings by parents of English/Scots/Irish descent, who came through Canada and the American south before landing in Montana. She left home at 18 to do her part for the WWII war effort, and headed down to the Fort Douglas army base outside Salt Lake City, where a high school friend was already working. Pretty early on she asked what there was to do for fun and who she should meet – She was told dancing and Tom Atwater, who was a fine dancer. Even though her mother told her not to be dazzled by a guy in uniform, they were married a few months later at the base. Mom did a lot of supporting dad’s education after the war, but also raised four kids, mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, and became an artist of some renown on two coasts in her lifetime. She passed away in 2015, at the ripe old age of 92.

Mom was not a fancy cook by any stretch of the imagination, but she admired a great deal about good food. She put three squares on the table for a family of six for many years. Her culinary bible was The Joy of Cooking, which now occupies a place of honor in my kitchen. She greatly admired and often attempted dishes by Julia Child, as did so many budding cooks in the 1960s, (She also introduced me to Julia at WGBH, it that’s another story). That said, she baked bread and cinnamon rolls regularly, canned produce she grew in her vegetable garden, (she made stunningly lovely gardens in general), and was quite open minded about exploring cuisines that were pretty out there for the times. I know that my interest in world cuisine and being adventurous came from her, without a doubt.

Mike’s Mom was Lenore Lazzaro. Her Pappa hailed from the Piedmont, in the northwestern shin of the Italian boot, and her Mom from Ireland, by way of Canada and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She started working for the USPS in the mid 1960s and did so for most of her working life. Lenore learned to cook when she was just a kid, to help feed her three younger siblings. She certainly inherited both Italian and Irish roots to her cooking. Mike says, ‘she just always loved to cook,’ and that passion has passed to him. He wrote, ‘When I was a kid we lived on a small chicken farm. We always had a large garden. She and her cousin and her Italian aunts made fresh pasta. She did her own canning. I rarely remember having food from cans as a kid.’ Their farm was on the northwest edge of Rockford, and some of it remains – The house and barn are there, as is the chicken coop, although that’s been turned into a garage. Lenore passed away last May at the age of 84.

So when I saw Michael post about making Italian beef recently, the light bulb atop my beady little head lit up brilliantly. We had a nice back and forth about it after I asked for his recipe, wherein he mentioned that this was a dish that had come to him from his Mom. I asked if I might write all this up, and he replied, ‘It would be an honor,’ – and indeed it is.

So, about that ethereal stuff – First off, what we’re talking about is a well cooked and seasoned hunk of beef that is then enjoyed in as many permutations as you have imagination. You can begin that journey as we did – a nice thick slice, with some fresh pasta and veggies on the side, but you could also go straight to Italian beef sandwiches without a trace of guilt. While you’re highly unlikely to find an analog of this dish in Italy, it’s a hallmark of the cuisine of Italian immigrants who landed in the American Midwest, firmly centered in Illinois. For scholars of the sandwich, Chicago is the Holy Land, and arguments as to who’s version is best can get, shall we say, rather animated. While some troglodytes have been known to claim that this sandwich derived from a French Dip, I beg to differ – French dip is, at its best, pedestrian, whereas a great Italian beef sandwich is a thing of sublime deliciousness – and of course, the beef is key.

The cut used is traditionally a top or bottom round, wet roasted in rich, (preferably home made), stock, with a properly hefty degree of garlic and dry spices onboard. Doing things this way will notably reduce the weight and size of your roast, and can even lead to people claiming it is dry, but that should never be true – Italian beef is meant to go with the incredibly rich jus that this cooking method generates – Whatever you do, make sure you combine the two and you will be more than happy, trust me.

As for method, purists will demand that the roasting be done at exactly 350° F, and you can certainly do that, placing your beef in a braiser or Dutch oven. That said, even if this is how many of the famous makers do theirs, we at home can do the deed in a slow cooker and achieve splendid results as well.

Here is what Michael had to say about how he does his version, followed by a point specific recipe that’s our swing at things. Between the two, you’ll get a good idea of what’s involved, and from that you can develop one that’s distinctly yours.

“Pretty much what you’d expect, with one exception: top or bottom round, onions, peppers (red and green), lots of garlic, a mix of dried herbs and spices, 3 to 1 beef broth to chicken broth (the chicken helps keep the metallic taste that the beef sometimes has at bay), a sprig each of fresh thyme and rosemary and a bay leaf (remove all at end), a couple healthy shots of Worcestershire sauce, a dribble of juice from a jar of pepperoncini and…here’s the secret…1/2 to a full cup of black coffee! Season and sear the roast, everything into the slow cooker, and about 5 hours later it’s done. The dry dressing mixes that a lot of Italian beef recipes call for are just too salty for my taste. I prefer to control the salt by mixing my own – My mom never used those mixes, either. I don’t know if my recipe is exactly like hers, but the coffee was definitely her contribution. Crunch the garlic and use a LOT.”

As for the dried Italian blend, I’ll just say that this should be as individual as possible. There’s some good guidelines for what makes a mix ‘Italian’, but that’s not gospel – you should go with what pleases you best. Here’s what we use these days as our All Purpose Italian Dry Blend – Feel free to tweak that as you see fit, and then call it yours.

2 Tablespoons Basil

2 Tablespoons Turkish Oregano

2 Tablespoons Lemon Thyme

2 Tablespoons Chive

2 Tablespoons Savory

1 Tablespoon Marjoram

1 Tablespoon Rosemary

1 Tablespoon Chile Flake

You can pulse this stuff in a food processor or spice grinder, or just patiently work it through a single mesh strainer. There’s nothing wrong with having the blend somewhat rustic, as opposed to a perfectly uniform powder – process until you reach the consistency you like, then store in a clean glass container.

Italian seasoning blend

Urban’s Italian Beef

3-4 Pound Top or Bottom Round Roast

4 Cups Beef or Chicken Stock, (or a blend as Mike does, if you prefer – homemade of course)

1 Red Bell Pepper

1 Green Bell Pepper

1-2 Onions (whatever variety you like)

1 Head fresh Fennel

8-12 Cloves Garlic

4 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning Blend

2 Turkish Bay Leaves

1 Cup Black Coffee

1/4 Cup Pepperoncini Juice

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce

1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Peel, trim and rough chop onions.

Smash, trim, and peel garlic.

Stem and devein peppers, then rough chop.

You may, if you wish, sauté the peppers and onions for a bit to get some deeper flavors into them.

Sautéing peppers and onions prior to slow cooking

Step, peel, trim and rough chop fennel.

In a dry, heavy skillet over medium high heat, sear the beef thoroughly on all sides.

Searing the beef roast

Transfer beef to a slow cooker, then add stock and all other ingredients.

Italian beef ready for a slow cook

Cook on a medium setting 3-4 hours, until you reach an internal temperature of 135° – 140° F.

Pull the beef out of the stock and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing or shredding.

Homemade Italian beef

Do not toss the stock! This is liquid gold, and it’s critical to enjoying the beef for additional meals. It also makes an exceptional base for soup or stew.

Italian beef stock - liquid gold

If you like slices, the stock will make amazing gravy with very little work required.

Whatever you make for subsequent meals, reheat stock in a heavy pan large enough to handle the stock plus whatever beef you want to use. You can slice or shred as you please – Then reduce heat to low and immerse the beef in the stock for at least 30 minutes, up to a coupe of hours – The longer you reintroduce them, the better your results.

Italian beef sandwich

If you’re doing Italian Beef Sandwiches, know that there’s a bunch of variations on this theme, each a favorite of someone and often debated hotly – Just go with what sounds best to you, and to heck with the naysayers. The most common, (and in my opinion, most delicious), additions are a giardiniera mix or pickled sweet peppers. Some folks like cheese, and that’s fine too. If you want more onions, tomato, and shredded lettuce, then do that – it’s your house. I like a little homemade Italian salad dressing on mine from time to time. The bread should be a nice, fresh Italian loaf, sliced thick but not too thick. Here are some of the more common ‘official’ variants.

Hot Dipped means Italian beef with gardiniera, and the bread slathered with hot stock.

Sweet Dry is Italian beef and sweet peppers, no extra stock.

A Soaker means the bread has been generously dunked in hot stock, with sweet peppers or gardiniera.

Cheesy is just that, with provolone or mozzarella.

Cheesy Garlic is beef and cheese on grilled garlic bread, (and it’s freakin’ delicious)

So there you go, with big love to Michael’s Momma for a wonderful dish, and a lifetime of fond memories. When you make it, offer up a little thanks to Lenore.

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.

Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov?

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

Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov
Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

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

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

Trimmed fat and connective tissue
Trimmed fat and connective tissue

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

Rendering fat from beef trimmings
Rendering fat from beef trimmings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer onions and stock to a mixing bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique
Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

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

Na Zdorovie!

Spaghetti Sauce a la Urban

There’s no doubt that a great batch of homemade spaghetti sauce is serious comfort food. In an ideal world, you want to make something that cooks low and slow, developing serious flavors, but what about when you get a hankering at 4:45 in the afternoon? Here’s how I scratch that itch. This is a simple sauce that tastes much richer than it might sound, and I assure you, it’s incredible the next day. The fresh veggies, citrus, pungent lemon thyme, piney savory, and subtle, herby sweetness of the marjoram is the key – Spaghetti Sauce a la Urban.

For the proteins, keep in mind that you can and should grind your own at home; if you don’t have the capability for that, dice it and you’ll be fine. If you prefer a vegetarian version, I’d substitute firm local tofu, or eggplant. Make sure all your veggies and proteins are as fresh as can be. Do use whole canned tomatoes; they hold more flavor than stewed, crushed, diced, etc, the quality is often better than fresh at this time of year, and they’re certainly less expensive.

8 Ounces Fresh Angel Hair Pasta

2 20 oz cans Whole Tomatoes

1/2 Pound Ground Pork

1/2 Pound Angus Beef

1 Cup Black Olives

1/2 Sweet Onion

1/2 Sweet Pepper

1 Stalk Celery

1 small Lemon

1/2 small Lime

3-4 Cloves Garlic

2-3 Sprigs Parsley

1/2 – 1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 – 1 teaspoon Savory

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

2 whole Bay Leaves

1 Cup Red Wine

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Dry Sherry

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

Toss the tomatoes into a large pot over medium low heat. Process with an immersion blender until you’ve got the consistency you like. I prefer to leave things a bit rustic, rather than going all the way to smooth sauce.

Rinse, peel, top and seed the onion, sweet pepper, celery, garlic, citrus, and parsley. Fine dice the onion, pepper, olives, and celery; if you have celery leaves, by all means, use them, that’s where the real flavor is. Mince the garlic, chiffonade the parsley. Quarter the citrus.

In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, add the beef and pork, and season lightly with salt and pepper. When the meats are nicely browned, add the cup of red wine and continue cooking until the raw alcohol smell goes away. Add the proteins to the tomato blend

Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to the sauté pan and allow to heat through. Add onion and pepper and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell is gone. Add all that to the big pot

Add 1/2 Cup of Sherry to the sauté pan and deglaze, thoroughly scraping up all the little bits. Once the raw alcohol smell has burned off, add that to the pot as well.

Squeeze citrus into the big pot, stir to incorporate. Crush by hand and add the lemon lemon thyme, savory, and marjoram. Add parsley and bay leaves, stir to incorporate. Taste and adjust salt and pepper seasoning as/if needed.

Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or two, stirring regularly.

Serve Over fresh angel hair pasta, with freshly grated Parmegiano, crusty bread, a nice green salad and a glass or two of Old Vine Zinfandel.

The next day, add a cup of cheese to the blend, and bake for 30 minutes at 350° F. As promised, it’ll be spectacular.

Spare Ribs with a Citrus Fennel Glaze

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.

Citrus Fennel Glazed Spare Ribs
Citrus Fennel Glazed Spare Ribs

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.

Citrus Fennel glaze is great for a bunch of dishes
Citrus Fennel glaze is great for a bunch of dishes

Citrus-Fennel Glaze

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.

Uncover your ribs and flip them meaty side up for glazing
Uncover your ribs and flip them meaty side up for glazing

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.

Beautiful salad!
Beautiful salad!

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.

Chicken ala Dianne

My Friend Dianne Strother Boyd was in need of a ‘low fat, yummy chicken recipe,’ so I put this together. When you’re cutting down on fat and/or going low on salt, what you want is something that has some zing to it, that’ll not only have a nice, bold flavor profile, but will also deliver mouth feel – I give you Chicken ala Dianne.

The combination of flavorful dark chicken meat, leaving the skins and bones on, and a sweet, vinegary marinade will do the trick. It’s an easy dish, doesn’t take a lot of prep time other than marinating, and tastes like you worked harder than you did.

When you lose the richness of fat, or the flavor enhancement salt brings, it’s important to compensate with broad brush strokes. With this dish, you get a really nice balance of major taste bases – Sweet, sour, bitter, with lighter touches of umami and salty. You might want to take a look at our Salt Free Seasoning Blends post, too.

So here ya, go, Dianne – Hope you like it, (and Bill, too!)

Chicken ala Dianne - Low on fat, high on flavor

Chicken ala Dianne

4 bone in, skin on Chicken Thighs (roughly 1 1/2 pounds)

2 Cups fresh Grape Tomatoes (you can rough chop big ones if that’s what you’ve got)

1/4 small sweet Onion

1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar

3/4 Cup Low Sodium Chicken Stock

1 small fresh Lemon

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar (Honey is fine too)

1 5” to 6” sprig fresh Rosemary

2-3 cloves fresh Garlic

2 Tablespoons Nonpareil Capers, drained

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Freshly ground Pepper.

 

Zest lemon and cut in quarters.

Trim, peel, and mince garlic.

Trim, peel and dice 1/4 cup of onion.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine vinegar, oil, stock, juice from 1/4 of the lemon, the lemon zest, garlic, onion, and honey. Whisk to incorporate. 

Add chicken to the mixing bowl and allow to marinate, refrigerated, for 30 minutes, then flip the pieces and marinate for another 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Arrange chicken in a baking pan or casserole dish, and pour marinade over the chicken.

Add the tomatoes to the dish and spread them evenly throughout – Ditto with the capers.

Break the rosemary into two or three pieces and toss that on the chicken.

Season with a few twists of pepper – With capers in there, you really don’t need any more added salt.

Bake on a middle rack until you reach an internal temperature of 160° F, then remove dish from oven and allow a 10 minute rest.

Serve with rice, a green salad, and the remaining lemon slices.

Canada Day? 4th of July? Here’s your Meal.

Canada Day Dinner, Eh?

Living as close to the border as we do, (you can pretty much throw rocks at it from here), Canada Day is a bit of a big deal. Held each July 1st, what once was known as Dominion Day harkens back to 1867. In that year, the British North America Act came into play, uniting the independent colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into one big, happy Canada. Fifteen years later, the Canada Act made It Canada Day, and the rest is glorious history. Our northern pals pretty much have a holiday three day weekend every month, (which is incredibly sensible, by the way), but this is a biggy – Coming when it does, it means food, and in particular, stuff appropriate for a picnic, barbecue, what have you. We gathered our one available kid, (the eldest, sans grandkids but with dawg), and decided to do up an appropriate meal – And as fate would have it, this wouldn’t suck on the 4th of July, either.

We settled on brisket, because we had a lovely, local grass fed hunk of beef just begging to be honored. Naturally, we just had to do some bbq beans and potato salad to go with it. Might seem heavy, but frankly, it wasn’t at all – It was ethereal – Perfect, in fact.

Heavy meal? Not at all - Ethereal, in fact.
Heavy meal? Not at all – Ethereal, in fact.

With the day kind of cloudy and cold, I decided I’d rather do the brisket in the oven, rather than on the grill and smoker. This raises the issue of authenticity – A beautiful hunk of beef like that deserves all glory, laud, and honor, so the prep and cooking absolutely cannot be half assed. Secondly, I decided on beans too late in the day to do traditional slow cooked, so those would have to go in the Instant Pot, and again, be as good as the real deal. M rounded things out with a stunningly good potato salad. While this may sound pretty pedestrian, I assure you, it’s not – Everything came out surprisingly good – Good enough that we had to write it down and share it. While we do the same kind of things a lot, we’re constantly tweaking methods and recipes. When the stars align and a meal is this good, it’s time to stop, think, and write down exactly what you used and what you did, because yeah – It’s so worth recreating again.

Let me say that again – Whenever you make something great, write it down, right then and there. Stop and write it down. I do this daily – Everything from a few scratches on a post it note, (sometimes fast enough that I later can’t read them), to more than a few thousand words. My food notes are vast, and many haven’t yet been revisited since they were recorded – Some have been researched, added to, recipes fleshed out, etc, (which sometimes leads to me saying, ‘Yeah I gotta recipe for that,’ after which I discover that answer to be sorta kinda true at best.) In any case, here is a shining truism – The worst thing we can do when cooking is to think, I’ll remember that, because chances are real good that you won’t. Sure, if it’s a thing you do the same way every time, or a basic, you don’t need to record that, (unless you want to share it, of course.) When I’m after a new idea, more oft than not, I’ll plow into my raw notes, see something that triggers a memory, (or at least piques my interest), and away we go. If it struck you as great food, write it down, don’t lose it – As for remembering what you wrote it down on, and where that is – you’re on your own.

So the first challenge was that brisket. Having lived a dozen years in Texas, I know better than to screw with something so culinarily sacred – You are welcome to try alternatives to the Gold Standard, (even if it might earn you some sideways glances or a mumbled comment), but whatever you produce had damned well be real good, y’all hear? Now, far as I’m concerned, there are three non-negotiables for a finished brisket

Great Brisket requires a great dry rub
Great Brisket requires a great dry rub

It must have a nice, crisp crust formed by a dry rub.

It must have notable smoke to the flavor profile.

It must end up fork tender and juicy as all get out.

This version was good enough that, when M noted that Joe didn’t have a knife, his response was, ‘You don’t need one.’

Obviously the quality of the beef is paramount. We had that covered, but I guess I’m getting wimpy in my old age, because I just really didn’t wanna cook out there on a gray, drizzly day, so I sussed out a viable alternative method. When I do brisket on a grill, it’s charcoal, for sure – Two zone set up. Once it’s mostly done, it goes to the smoker for the last hour or so. My solution was to incorporate smoke into the rub, in the form of smoke powder from Butcher and Packer. Through what they call a “highly refined process,” smoke is turned into powder form and mixed with dextrose so that it won’t clump too much. What you get is true to the wood smoke flavor that will fool damn near anyone into thinking you smoked whatever it is you apply it to – In the immortal words of Jackie Chan, ‘No bullshit.’ They make hickory and mesquite, and they’re sublime stuff, indeed. Next, we plugged in an uncovered dry/covered wet cooking process that approximates grilling to a very acceptable degree.

My big twist here is a North African Berbere spice mix to the rub, which was totally serendipitous – It added a delightful, exotic warmth and heat that really popped. I intended to do my typical brisket rub that calls for chili powder, only to find that I didn’t have any mixed up. As I was searching, I saw the berbere and thought, why the hell not? Here’s the deal with that stuff, (but you could absolutely just sub chile powder if you’re not feeling adventurous.)

Urban’s Indoor Brisket

3-4 Pound Beef Brisket

1 1/2 Cups Beef Stock

2 Tablespoons Berbere Spice Blend

2 Tablespoons Sea Salt

2 Tablespoons Mesquite Smoke Powder

1 Tablespoon Granulated Garlic

1 Tablespoon Granulated Onion

1 Tablespoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

1 Tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar

2 teaspoons Dry Mustard

1/2 teaspoon crushed Sage

Preheat oven to 350° F

Unwrap and trim brisket, leaving a nice fat cap.

Combine all dry ingredients and hand blend thoroughly.

Rub a generous layer of the mix into all surfaces of the brisket – Do it by hand, take your time and really work the rub into the meat.

Place the brisket fat side up on a broiling pan.

Roast for 1 hour, uncovered.

Reduce the heat to 300° F, carefully add the beef stock to the bottom of the broiler pan, then tightly wrap and seal the entire pan with metal foil – Wrap it fairly tight to the meat – Don’t leave a whole bunch of air space around the brisket.

Roast for about another 3 hours, until the brisket is fork tender.

Remove from oven, keep the brisket covered and allow a 15 minute rest.

Carve roughly 1/4” slices across the grain and serve.

You can use pan juices as is, or transfer them to a sauté pan, add a little butter and a little more stock over medium heat, and use that as well.

Next came Beans, which I defaulted to the Instant Pot – I can assure you that they were amazing, and suffered not at all from that cooking method, (and I have witnesses). As you’ll see, it’s a three step cooking process with the IP, but it’s all done onboard, it’s super efficient, and the results are stunningly good.

Here again, quality matters a lot. You’ll recall that not long ago, I wrote a bit of a paean to Rancho Gordo beans – On the social media site for RG Club members, a newer convert recently commented as follows, ‘I love my beans so much, but… RG has ruined other beans for me. I can no longer grab a can of garbanzos or a bag of black beans, because they don’t even compare to the quality of RG beans.’ This is so true. I used a variety called Rio Zape, which RG owner Steve Sando describes as, ‘the classic heirloom bean that inspired the birth of Rancho Gordo. Suggestions of chocolate and coffee make this pinto-family rarity one of our favorite and most requested beans.’ It’s no joke – Those beans, coming out of the initial cook with nothing involved but a little salt, are amazing – Taste them, give them to others to taste, and everyone’s eyebrows go up and they start making little spontaneous yum yum noises – Get the picture? If you love beans, you must try Rancho Gordo – They’re that good.

Perfect indoor brisket
Perfect indoor brisket

Urban’s BBQ IP Beans

1 Pound Rancho Gordo Rio Zape Beans

1 small Sweet Onion

1-2 Serrano Chiles

6 slices Bacon

3/4 Cup Blackstrap Molasses

1/2 Cup Chicken Stock

1/2 Cup Ketchup

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar

1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard

1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar

3-4 Shakes of Worcestershire Sauce

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil for sautéing.

Add dry beans and 6 cups of water to the IP.

Set to Beans and 60 minutes and start the cook.

Allow the pressure to reduce by natural release.

Transfer beans to a colander and drain, (save the liquor for soups and stews – It freezes great)

Dice onion and chiles, cut bacon into roughly 1/4” strips across each piece, (the short way, so you end up with strips about 1/4” by 3/4” or thereabouts.

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine molasses, ketchup, mustard, agave nectar, vinegar, and Worcestershire – Whisk thoroughly to incorporate.

Set the IP on sauté, add the tablespoon of avocado oil and allow it to heat through.

Add onion, chiles, and bacon – Sauté until onion is soft and bacon lightly browned – about 3 to 4 minutes.

Turn IP off, leaving veggies and bacon therein. Deglaze the bottom of the IP pan with 1/2 cup of chicken stock, scraping up and loosening all the naughty bits.

Add beans and sauce to veggies, bacon, and stock, and gently stir to incorporate thoroughly.

Set for normal pressure run, 30 minutes.

Natural release.

Go wild.

And finally, M’s potato salad incorporates two different pickle flavors that really shine together – Dills in the salad, and bread and butter brine in the dressing. It was stellar.

Instant Pot Beans that taste like all day low and slow
Instant Pot Beans that taste like all day low and slow

M’s Two Pickle Potato Salad

4 large Potatoes

3 Eggs

1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, diced

1 stalk Celery, fine diced

1 Cup Olive Oil Mayonnaise

1 Tablespoon Yellow Mustard

1 Tablespoon minced fresh Dill

2 teaspoons minced fresh Parsley

2-3 dill pickles, fine diced

1/3 Cup Bread & Butter Pickle Brine

Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste.

Prepare an ice bath in a large mixing bowl.

Put eggs in a pan large enough to cover with 2” or so of water.

Bring to a boil, cover, then turn the heat off, and let them sit in the covered pan for 20 minutes.

Pour out the hot water and replace with cold a couple of times, then let the eggs sit in that until you’re ready to deal with them.

Boil potatoes until just fork tender, then plunge into the ice bath to shock, (stops the cooking process).

Prepare veggies as per above.

In a large non-reactive mixing bowl, add potatoes and veggies, including pickles, and eggs. Stir gently with a kitchen spoon to thoroughly combine.

Add mayo, mustard, dill, parsley, pickle brine, and lightly salt and pepper. Stir to combine and thoroughly coat the salad. Taste and adjust brine, salt, and pepper to your liking. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.

M’s Two Pickle Potato Salad
M’s Two Pickle Potato Salad

There ya go – Happy Days, whatever they are!

Brine That Turkey!

Truth or dare time – How many of y’all, when it comes to your Thanksgiving turkey, do not show the bird the proper love? Tell the truth, now… Do you simply throw a bird in to the oven? Do you fill it with stuffing? Thought so… truth be told, even if you rub it with something nice, you’re still not giving that poultry it’s holiday due. If you want to serve the best bird, you’ve got to brine that turkey. I’m gonna tell you how, but first, here’s why.

Turkey is an extremely lean protein. If you doubt that, buy some ground turkey, do nothing to it but cook it, and see what you get – unlike good, fresh hamburger, there’ll be no moisture in the pan, and the taste will be, well… less than optimal. Let’s face it, we don’t need fat from our bird, ‘cause we’re gonna get that from all the sides we make. What we do need is a tender, juicy bird, and again, brining is the way to get there. Now, I know there are some of you out there thinking, ‘yeah, but if I cook it right and season the skin nicely before hand, it’ll still be great,’ right? Well, no, no it won’t – it might be good, maybe even really good, but it won’t be great.

Seasoning right before you cook, or even an hour or two before you cook, doesn’t allow the salt you’ve added enough time to do its thing. It won’t penetrate the flesh at all, really, especially with a hunk of meat as thick as a turkey breast. It’ll do a bit of work on the surface, but no more. Truly, the only way to allow seasoning to work is to give it the time it needs – And that means you need to brine that bird.

Traditionally, brining is a wet process. We submerge the bird completely in a brine, and give it anywhere from eight to twelve hours to do its thing. That works great, frankly, and it really isn’t hard. Brined birds weigh more after cooking than a dry bird does – Up to 8% more, and that’s virtually all added moisture, which is very good indeed. The wet brine process also acts chemically to break down some of the tougher proteins within the bird’s muscle fibers, leading to tender flesh – Also good. So, if you’re of a mind to wet brine, here are some basics.

If you buy a frozen bird, you can thaw it while brining, which saves you some time, (if you buy a fresh turkey, you don’t need to worry about that.)

Proper brining is a function of both brine strength, the weight of the bird, and brining time. What you’re doing at home is technically called gradient brining – That is, putting food in a higher salt concentration brine than you really want in the food, because you don’t have the time to do what’s known as equilibrium brining – That’s when you use a lower salt concentration and allow the time needed for the salt content in the brine and the food to equalize. When you see or read about something like pastrami being brined for a week or longer, that’s what they’re doing, and that’s also why the Pro’s make stuff that consistently tastes better than what we do at home. All that said, don’t fret – What we do at home is safe, and it really does make a better bird. So, for reasonable gradient brining, we brine whole turkeys for about an hour per pound, in a 5% to 6% brine concentration.

Basic brine ratio is often shown as ‘1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water’, but not all salt weighs the same – what we really want is about 7 ounces of salt per gallon. When you brine, use kosher salt – The larger crystal size means it dissolves faster in water than fine grained stuff, and there’s nothing in there but pure salt, so it wont taint your brine. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, (And frankly, you should), then Morton Kosher weighs 7.5 ounces per cup, and Diamond 5 per cup. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with adding herbs or spices to a brine – If you like it, do it.

Basic Wet Poultry Brine
For each Gallon of water, add
7 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon crushed Sage
1 Tablespoon Lemon Thyme

For a nice twist,

Cider Brine for Poultry
For each Gallon of Apple Cider, add
7 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon ground Black Pepper
2-3 dashes Tabasco sauce

For a 15 to 18 pound turkey, you will need a couple of gallons of cider or water, and a clean, food grade 5 gallon plastic bucket. You don’t need to heat the water or cider. Just make sure all the salt has completely dissolved before you proceed.

You need to plan ahead for wet brining. You’ll want an additional 6 to 12 hours between the brining and the cooking, so, if you’re thawing and brining, your process needs to begin nice and early on the day before turkey day.

Pay attention to food safety procedures during brining, without fail! Your brine and bird must remain under 40° F at all times, period; if you need to add a little ice, do so. If you need to add a lot, compensate with a bit more salt. When your brining period is done, pour out the brine, (NEVER reuse it.) Gently rinse the bird in clean, cold water, then pat it dry with clean paper towels and then transfer to a roasting pan.

Now comes the secret to gloriously golden, crispy skin. Allow an air rest for your bird, by letting it sit, uncovered in the refrigerator, for 4 to 6 hours after brining. This will help moisture evaporate from the skin, and allow the meat to reabsorb some moisture as well.

Now, if all that makes you paraphrase George H. W. Bush, ‘Not gonna do it, not gonna go there,’ then here’s an even easier option that works just as well. And it’s funny that, right at this point, literally right at this point in today’s narrative, I got this text from my friend John Joyce, a fine guitar maker from the Twin Cities in Minnesota – ‘Hey E what do you think: dry brined or wet brined turkey. I’ve done wet for years but I’ve read a lot of good stuff on dry brining.’ Yep, dry brining is exactly what I was about to type, so, here ya go JJ.

While the term ‘dry brining’ might seem kinda oxymoronic, i assure you it’s not. In restaurants, this has been done for a long, long time. Often called ‘pre-salting,’ it acts on a protein more or less as a wet brine does, albeit without the water, equipment, or hassle. Think of it as a dry rub, like we use on poultry, ribs, and the like, and it’ll come to light for you.

The chemistry here is very cool, too. When we first apply a dry brine, osmosis occurs, meaning the moisture within the bird is drawn toward the higher salt concentration rubbed on the skin. As that moisture reaches the surface, it dissolves the salt and sugar in the brine. In the final stages, the liquified brine is draw back into the bird as things equalize. There, the solution acts as a wet brine does, breaking down those tough muscle proteins and acting as a tenderizer – Pretty cool, huh? And to top it off, all this is done in your fridge, during a simultaneous cold rest, so you get that crispy skin, too – Two birds with one rock, if you will.

Dry brining does require time, and in fact, more time than wet, usually. Since there’s no added water, you’ll need two to three days to let the process do it’s thing, so once again, plan ahead.

It’s also important not to get a bird that’s been pre-seasoned in any way, since that can and will upset the balance of things – Avoid anything that says kosher, re-seasoned, or self-basting. You’ll also want a fresh bird, or at the very least a fully thawed one.

Basic Dry Turkey Brine
5 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon crushed sage
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Sweet Dry Turkey Brine
5 Ounces Kosher Salt
2 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika

Prep your bird by removing any of the extraneous bits, then pat it dry with clean paper towels.

Gently gently separate skin from flesh over the breast area, taking care not to rip the skin. It’ll work much better in direct contact with the meat.

Rub a teaspoon or two of the mix into the bird’s cavity, then do the same all around the drumsticks. Rub 3-4 tablespoons of the mix onto the breast meat, and use the rest evenly across the skin.

Ct a small slit in each side of the bird about half way along the wing tips and then slide the tips into that cut.

Put the bird on a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet, and into the fridge for at least 2 days, and 3 is better.

When the time’s up, you’re ready to cook. You can roast, deep fry, whatever floats your boat.

Keep your bread stuffing in a casserole dish, and prepare a nice juicy cavity filler for the bird.

1 Apple of your choice
1/2 Sweet Onion
1 stalk Celery
Tablespoon Canola Oil
1/2 teaspoon Sage
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rough chop the orange, onion, and celery, (and if you have celery leaves, use those!). Throw those in a mixing bowl, then add oil, Sage, salt and pepper, then combine thoroughly. Stuff your bird’s cavity thoroughly. Place the bird on a rack in a roasting pan, and add 2 cups of clean water to the pan. Insert an internal thermometer to the thickest part of the breast.

Preheat your oven to 350° F.

Standard roasting times, stuffed, at 350° F follow; that said, the only real way to know when the bird is done is by internal temperature, and we’re looking for 165 F.

10 to 18 pounds 3-3/4 to 4-1/2 hours

18 to 22 pounds 4-1/2 to 5 hours

22 to 24 pounds. 5 to 5-1/2 hours

Start your roast with the bird uncovered, then cover loosely with foil for the last hour. Basting isn’t necessary, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

When the bird is done, remove it from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes prior to carving – That rest is vital to allowing juices to equalize throughout the cooked bird, so don’t cheat!

Carve, admire, enjoy, and get ready for leftovers,

Later in that text, JJ wrote, ‘I like those ingredients. I usually do two birds. I’ll do one dry and one wet. Is the cider recipe on your site?’ It’s right here for ya, Buddy! He ended with this – ‘I’m also making your ginger ale recipe. So I guess that means you’ll have a virtual seat at our table. ?’

I told him I was honored and pleased by that to no end, and I truly am.