Charro Beans, Here We Come.

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

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

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

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

Charros are best made with high quality, dry beans

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

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

Chiles are a must in charro beans

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

Plum tomatoes are the go to for charro beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Charro Beans de UrbanMonique

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

Bean Stock to cover

Chicken or Veggie Stock to top off

6 strips smoky, Pepper Bacon

2 medium Sweet Onions

4 fresh Roma Tomatoes

2 fat cloves Garlic

2-4 Chiles (We like jalapeño or serrano)

1 small Lemon

6-8 stalks fresh Cilantro

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

Salt and freshly ground Pepper to taste

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cut onion, tomatoes, and chiles in half.

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

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

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

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

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

Dice all the roasted veggies, and mince the garlic.

Rough chop cilantro.

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

Add roasted veggies and stir to incorporate.

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

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

Add oregano, and stir to incorporate.

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

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

Charro beans in all their glory

Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.

Buen provecho!

Huaraches – Fantastic Mexican Street Food!

When you read that we’re making huaraches, you’d be forgiven if you thought we’re talking footwear – This version, however, is fantastic Mexican street food, so trust me when I tell you they taste a bunch better than shoe leather – Huaraches are drop dead delicious and really fun to make.

Loaded Huaraches - Street food bliss!

Huaraches are a thin corn cake stuffed with refried beans and topped with whatever you like. They reportedly originated at a Mexico City street stand in the 1930s, invented by Mrs. Carmen Gomez Medina. Legend has it that she initially offered tlacoyos, which are in essence identical to huaraches, just shaped more like an American football than a Mexican sandal. Either way, it’s hard to miss with that equation, right?

Huaraches are still plenty popular in Mexico City, as well as the rest of Mexico. For that matter, in any US city with a decent Mexican-American population, somebody is offering them from a cart, truck, or hole in the wall eatery – Just as it should be. The name probably derives from the Nahuatl word for sandals – kwarachi.

This is another perfect dish for dealing with leftovers. Anything from pico de gallo to potatoes, fresh or pickled veggies, leftover proteins, or just a dusting of good cheese will do the trick. If you’re planning for them, you can go wild and chase down fresh choriso, queso añejo, and nopales to add to the mix. Huaraches are plenty hardy as a main dish, or can be cut up for appetizers, as you please.

The originals were stuffed with black beans, but any bean you have on hand will most definitely do. If you’re dealing with really high quality legumes, (like Rancho Gordo), nothing other than mashed or puréed beans and a pinch of salt is required to make them special. If inspiration strikes when what you have readily available are canned beans, that’s OK – As long as you give them some love, they’ll work just fine. I’ve included a recipe for doctored beans that will do the trick.

Forming huaraches is easiest with a tortilla press. If you love tacos and eat them a lot, you deserve fresh corn tortillas and a decent press – a good one can be had for under twenty bucks. They’re fun to form by hand too, so fear not if a rolling pin is what you’ve got to work with.

I’ve included a recipe for our killer salsa verde, which goes particularly well with huaraches. Again, this is a dish that’s perfect for leftovers, so just pull out what you’ve got, wing it, and enjoy.

Beans for huaraches

Doctored Beans

1 Cup cooked Beans

3/4 Cup Chicken or Veggie Stock

1 clove fresh minced Garlic

2 Tablespoons fine diced fresh Onion

1-2 Tablespoons fine diced Jalapeño Chile

2-3 sprigs minced Cilantro

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

Pinch Salt

if using canned beans, pour them into a single mesh strainer and rinse thoroughly under cold running water until all traces of the liquid they’re packed in are gone.

In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, heat the oil through. 

Add the onion and chile. Sauté, stirring, until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 2 minutes.

Add garlic and sauté until the raw smell dissipates.

Add beans, chicken stock, cilantro, and salt, stir to incorporate.

When the beans start to boil, reduce temp to a bare simmer. 

Simmer beans for about 15 – 20 minutes, until the liquid is almost gone – then remove from heat.

Beans can be mashed with a fork or spud masher and left rustic. If you prefer things really smooth, they can be puréed in a blender. If you go the latter road, add a little more stock as needed to help everything blend properly. You want them thick but spreadable, so whichever version you make, use more stock to thin things out if needed when you’re ready to fill huaraches.

Mashed beans, perfect for huaraches

Roasted Salsa Verde

1 1/2 Pounds fresh, ripe Tomatillos, (about 8-10 good sized ones).

1/2 large yellow Onion

1-3 fresh Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles

1-2 large cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 Cup fresh Cilantro

1 small fresh Lime 

Pinch Salt

NOTE: ‘Field stripping’ chiles means to stem, seed, and devein. If you really like heat, then you can disregard the deseed and devein steps.

Pull off the papery husks from the tomatillos and rinse them thoroughly. Cut them in half.

If you want milder chiles, cut them in half and field strip them – if not, just stem and cut in half.

Cut onion and half and peel, (the other half can go in the fridge).

Peel and trim garlic, but leave cloves whole.

Cut lime in half, put half back in the fridge.

fresh veggies day to roast for salsa verde

Place all that onto a baking sheet, cut side down under a broiler, with the rack set on an upper, (but not the highest), slot.

Let everything broil until the skins of the tomatillos, tomato, and chiles have blistered, then flip them all and let things work on the back side – Total cooking time will be about 12-15 minutes.

When the tomatillos are bubbling nicely, and the insides are soft when pressed with a fork, pull the baking sheet out and let everything cool for a few minutes.

roasted veggies ready to make salsa verde

Rough chop cilantro.

Toss tomatillos, tomato, chiles, onion, garlic, cilantro, and a pinch of salt into a blender vessel. Squeeze the lime juice in with everything else.

Purée in the blender until you have a nice, even consistency. Taste and adjust lime and salt as desired.

Fresh roasted Salsa Verde

Pour into a non-reactive jar or bowl, cover and chill until ready for use. This recipe makes about a quart of finished salsa. Tightly covered in clean glass, it’ll last for about a week refrigerated.

 

Huaraches de UrbanMonique

2 Cups Masa Harina

1 Cup mashed or puréed Beans

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1 Cup + 2-3 Tablespoons Hot Water

1 teaspoon Salt

In a large mixing bowl, add masa, salt, and 1 cup of hot water. Knead by hand until the dough is fully incorporated – It should not stick to your hands, but should feel moist – It will feel almost like play dough when it’s right – Add that extra tablespoon or two of water as needed to get there. When all is well, cover with a clean damp cloth and let the dough rest for 15 minutes – This allows the masa to fully absorb the water, and keeps your final product from drying out.

Always cover resting masa!

Set up your mis en place – Masa, press or rolling pin, beans, and skillet.

Check your dough – If it feels like it’s dried out some, (which it probably will), add a tablespoon of water and knead that in – You want a feel like a soft cookie dough, but not sticky.

Pinch off some dough and roll it into a ball about the size of a large egg.

masa balls ready to press

Put a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add 1/4 cup avocado oil, and allow it to heat through, (if it starts to smoke, turn it down a bit).

Preheat your oven to warm, and set a rack in the middle position with a baking sheet lined with parchment.

If you’re using a press, cut waxed paper or parchment to more or less fit the plates – If you’re rolling, just a couple chunks about 8” long will do nicely, (if you still use plastic in your kitchen, what you really want it the sides of a gallon ziplock bag cut into big circles – That’s the most forgiving and easy release option.)

Alright, here comes the fun part. Grab a dough ball and squeeze it into an egg shape. 

Making fresh huaraches!

Use your thumb to press deeply into the middle of the egg, forming an egg-long, wide trough – The egg lengthens a bit as you do this, so it kinda looks like a little canoe now.

Making fresh huaraches!

Add about a tablespoon of beans to fill the trough, then gently pinch up the edges of the canoe to surround and seal in the beans. You’ll get a bit of filling slopping over, so just wipe that off and proceed. 

Making fresh huaraches!

Once it’s sealed, use your palms to roll that canoe into a log about 5” long.

Making fresh huaraches!

Making fresh huaraches!

Now you’re ready to either press or roll – These will end up as oblongs, vaguely sandal shaped beasties about 6” long and 4” or so wide – It’s not an exact thing, so don’t fret, (and as you can see, mine weren’t picture perfect!) Just have fun with it, and know that the more you do, the better you get – They’re going to be delicious, and that’s what counts.

Making fresh huaraches!

Making fresh huaraches!

You want to fry these as soon as they’re pressed or rolled. Handle them carefully. Peel the top parchment off, and flip the thing so the huarache is on your hand. Now carefully peel the other parchment off and slip the goods into the hot pan.

Fry for about a minute or so, then flip it and do the other side for a minute and a half to two minutes – You want a nice golden brown to that second side.

Your first huaraches probably won’t be pretty, but they will be delicious!

Transfer the cooked huarache to the baking sheet in the oven and move on to the next one.

Huarache toppings - Whatever you got!

Toppings are whatever you desire and have on hand. A quick pickled mix of radish and sweet onion, fresh chiles, onion, or cilantro. Thinly sliced cabbage, crumbly Mexican cheese, fresh tomato, avocado, more lime wedges, the salsa verde of course. Leftover chicken, beef, or pork is dandy, and again, fresh chorizo is a delight.

Fresh chorizo is never a bad idea

These go great with cold Mexican beer, great friends, and lively conversation!

Carne Adobada – 100% Delicious

It’s impossible to say where exactly adobada, (or sometimes, adovada), comes from. Generally, it’s a safe bet that northern Mexico, past and present, is the source. Adobada in Catalan means marinated, which doesn’t give a whole bunch of clues at to what we’re supposed to marinate with. As it turns out, that’s OK though, because however you make it, carne adobada is 100% delicious.

Adobada is popular all over Mexico. In its simplest form, adobada marinade might just include red chiles (powdered or minced), vinegar, and Mexican oregano, while more involved iterations can approach mole in their complexity. It’s arguably most popular in the coastal states south of Puerta Vallarta – Jalisco, Colima, and Michoacan. There the chile power is likely to be a mix of guajillo, ancho, pasilla, or chipotles. Adobada is also wholly embraced by New Mexican cuisine. There, the chile in question will undoubtedly be New Mexican red, AKA Hatch, (varying in power from fairly mild to nuclear, depending upon one’s proclivities.)

Adobada rocket fuel

Back in the days before refrigeration, the cut up pork most commonly used for the dish might be tossed into a pot with the lactobacillus acidophilus that generates yoghurt. Doing so would aid in preservation, and impart a subtle sour note to the finished dish – That’s likely why modern iterations call for citrus or vinegar in the mix. Ditto for the reason most cooks prefer their adobada chiles con pellejo (with skins) – the chiles either blistered by roasting or, if using dried, toasted during the cooking process – This adds a subtle bitter note that many folks insist is absolutamente necesario for authentic taste.

Scorching dried chiles

Truth be told, a lot of marinating came into play because the meats it was working on were less than stellar in quality or condition, (and that’s still true in much of the world.) Here, where we’re privileged to have amazing proteins available pretty much any time, it’s done to add things to the mix, not hide them. Even if we’re building a complex palette of flavors, we want the true flavor of beef, pork, chicken, tofu, or beans to remain notable – That’s achieved by balance in the marinade, and paying attention to the way we cook.

look up adobada on a search engine and you’ll see myriad ways to cook suggested, or even insisted upon. What I believe is necessary is this – The finished product must have a distinct outer crust, almost burnt, (as you’d generate when making great chili or beef stew), while the inside of each chunk needs to be tender and juicy. While some places offer adobada that’s more like a stew, to me that’s just chile colorado – Another thing altogether, really.

Many cooks think there’s only one way to do this, (theirs), but it ain’t necessarily so – You can get there by stove top, or grill, or baking, as you please. For M2¢W, I think a multi-stage cook is in order. Specifically, a relatively low and slow primary cook, followed by a quick, hot seat just prior to serving. That is, in fact, what a fair share of restaurants that offer adobada as I’ve described do. It works great, and it gives you flexibility when you’re short on time.

Slow cooker adobada pork

You can do adobada with any protein you like, (and you should), but you aught to start with pork – That’s the holy grail of the dish. For that, you’ll want around 3 pounds of fresh, boneless shoulder. And for those of you who don’t eat meat, I’m here to tell you this will rock with fresh, firm tofu, or great beans.

So, what I’ll offer here is an amalgam of some Mexican and New Mexican ingredients and techniques that will deliver the goods, and it’s a gas to make too. With this marinade, you can go as long as overnight, but at the very least, let it bathe for a good 4 hours prior to cooking. If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can certainly do this in a 325° F oven, (but why would you not have a slow cooker?)

The chiles I used were picked to feed the hybrid theme. None of them are particularly hot, because to me, this dish isn’t designed to burn your face off – It’s meant to provide a pleasant chile buzz as a top note of the marinade. You can use more, or sub hotter varieties as you please, (David Berkowitz? I’m talking about you, Pal.) The same goes for garlic, as you can certainly find adobada so laden with ajo that it’ll be your signature scent for days to come, but to me, that’s not the point – Balance is.

 

Urban’s Carne Adobada

3 – 3 1/2 Pounds Boneless Pork Shoulder

2-3 Cups low sodium Chicken Stock

1 Cup chile soaking water

1-2 dried Ancho Chiles, seeded

2-3 dried Guajillo Chiles, seeded 

1 dried Chipotle Chile, seeded

1-3 dried New Mexican Red (Hatch) Chiles, seeded

3-5 cloves fresh Garlic

1/2 medium Onion (roughly 1 cup)

1/2 Cup fresh Orange Juice

1/2 Cup Raisins

1/4 Cup live Cider Vinegar

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

1 teaspoon Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon Salt

1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

2 Bay Leaves

NOTE: in the images here, you’ll see I used some ground, some flake, and some whole chiles – That’s what I had, so that’s what I used. Certainly, the more whole dried you use, the more of that smoky, bitter con pellejo flavor you’ll get into the mix.

 

Allow a cast iron skillet over high heat to get truly hot.

Remove seeds from chiles, but leave the stems on, (it makes them easier to handle and flip)

Toast chiles, flipping regularly until they start to smoke a bit.

Raisins and chiles soaking

Transfer chiles to a bowl, add bay leaves, and cover well with boiling water. Allow to steep for 30 minutes, until they’re nice and soft.

Put raisins in another small bowl and cover with about 1” of boiling water. Let them steep for the time remaining on the chile soaking clock.

Pan roasted garlic

Add unpeeled garlic cloves to the skillet and reduce heat to medium. Toast the garlic, flipping regularly, until the skin is scorched and the cloves are notably soft, about 5-8 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Trimmed boneless pork shoulder

While that’s going on, cut your pork shoulder into roughly 1” steaks and trim excess fat. Shoulder has plenty of interstitial fat, so remove any really big hunks and obvious silver skin, but don’t go overboard – Pork fat is good.

Dont you dare toss that chile soaking water

When your chiles are ready, drain them, and reserve the soaking water – Just make sure you check the heat level so you know what you’re dealing with. You can chuck the bay leaves.

Remove the stems from your reconstituted chiles, mince them, then toss them into a blender vessel. 

Peel the garlic and add that, along with 2 cups of the chicken stock, the orange juice, the drained raisins (don’t need to save that soaking liquid), the vinegar, a tablespoon of avocado oil, a pinch of salt, the agave nectar, and the ground cumin.

Cover and pulse all that until you get a nice mix. There will be some chunks of this and that still, which is just fine.

adobada marinade doing its thing

Arrange your pork in a baking dish and pour in all the marinade. Lift each piece of pork to make sure you get marinade on the undersides of each piece.

Cover the pan with metal foil and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

When you’re ready to cook – 

Peel and trim and dice onion.

Remove pork from baking dish and arrange in slow cooker – Leave the lion’s share of the marinade in the baking dish.

Add the reserved chile soaking water to the marinade, along with a pinch of salt, the oregano, and lemon thyme. Stir all that to incorporate, and then pour it all into the slow cooker. Add the diced onion on top and cover.

You can cook on low, medium, or high as you’ve got time for – Lower and slower is better, but they’ll all do just fine. Cook until the pork is fork tender, which on our pot means anywhere from 4 to 8 hours.

When you’re ready to serve, heat 2 tablespoons of avocado oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat. 

The post slow cook sear

Add as much pork as you want for the meal to the skillet and let it cook, unflipped, until it develops a nice dark crust, about 3-5 minutes. Flip once to get the other side.

Transfer pork to a serving platter.

You won’t need a knife to shred this pork

Serve with fresh, warm tortillas, pico de gallo, pickled onions/chiles/radishes, crema, lime wedges, and maybe some queso fresco or cotija, and cold, cold Mexican beer.

Tacos de puerco adobada

Postscript:

Monica had two quotes after this meal that I’ll share here – 

‘This is better than anything we’ve ever had a Mexican restaurant,’ and

‘You’ve bested me in slow cooker pork.’ 

Coming from her, that’s fairly amazing, so – Just sayin’…

This post is dedicated to the late, great food writer Jonathan Gold. There’s a guy who knew how to write about food. His love, passion, humor, and vast knowledge always shown through, and damn, could he write great last lines. Thanks man, you’re missed, but never forgotten.

Enfrijoladas, Mexico’s national dish for fantastic leftovers

It’s a fact that there are amazing go-to leftover dishes all over this world. I think that’s because they’re based on food made at home with deep love, and because so many things really are even better the next day. Of course the real beauty of this is the opportunity to clean out the fridge and rummage through the pantry. All that said, the root of such a meal must be truly stellar, and great beans certainly fall into that category, especially when they lead to Enfrijoladas, Mexico’s national dish for fantastic leftovers.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños Enfrijoladas Ebeños

Like many a favorite, claims to the origins of enfrijoladas are many and varied, from all points of the compass down there. While discerning that is nigh on impossible, what we can say is that the dish is very old. To reinforce that point, we need only to take a quick look at Oaxacan cuisine.

Oaxaca, the heartbeat of indigenous Mexico

Oaxaca is down south a mite, west of the state of Chiapas and south of Puebla state. This area remains a bastion of original Mexican culture, with roughly 50% of the indigenous population there non-Spanish speakers. The geography and climate have allowed pre-Columbian culture to remain relatively healthy, which is a godsend to those striving to better grasp Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards – Recent archeological studies indicate that the first inhabitants arrived over 10,000 years ago.

That antiquity is certainly reflected in the Oaxacan diet, where corn, beans, chiles, chocolate, game, and yes, insects, are staples to this day, with relatively little European influence found therein. Hundreds of mole variants come from here, as do rightfully famous versions of enfrijoladas. Made simply with black beans and potent chiles on lightly fried, fresh corn tortillas, This is a delicious and stunningly complex experience for such a simple dish – And it’s a safe bet they’ve been made this way for a long, long time.

Regardless of origin, the real beauty of making enfrijoladas is that winging it is par for the course. It’s a dish intended to use whatever you find that seems promising to you – So explore, take a risk or three, and see what happens. It’s a safe bet you’ll rarely make the same thing twice, and that’s good, (and of course, if you do strike on a mix that really bowls you over, write it down so you can do it again.)

So, naturally, there’s the bean question. When this posts I know that a bunch of y’all are going to think, ‘I’ve heard of those, but I thought they were supposed to be made with ____ bean.’ You’re not wrong, but the real key to great enfrijoladas is this – You can and should make them with any bean you have. That is, in fact, the great joy of the dish. If they’re really good beans, like Rancho Gordo or other reputable heirloom stuff, they’ll be stunning. I cannot encourage you enough to try a bunch of different beans in this pursuit. Yes, down in Oaxaca, black beans generally rule, but everywhere in Mexico, they grow and eat far more varieties than that. 

Rancho Gordo is the best way I know to try top shelf heirloom beans – In fact, the ones you’ll see me use herein are a French variety, Mogette de Vendée, that I got from them. I overcooked them for my original intent, but rather than freak out, we froze them and bided our time – When the thought of enfrijoladas came up, we went to the freezer and were off to the races – That’s how great leftovers work, gang.

French white beans for enfrijoladas?! Si!

The heartbeat of enfrijoladas is the sauce and the tortillas, of course. If ever there was a time to make fresh corn tortillas, this would be it, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the dish – As you’ll see in our pictures, we had store bought stuff that needed to get used, so that’s what we did – It’s all good in the ‘hood. 

Your sauce may be nothing more than beans and chiles with some bean broth or stock to thin things out, and if so, it’ll be wonderful – It never hurts to start as a purist, if for no other reason than to fully grasp why this dish is so ubiquitous down south. Again though, this is all about exploring pantry and fridge and using what needs to be used. You’ll see below that our version had quite a bit in the mix – Either end of that spectrum and everything in between is encouraged. 

As for filling, nothing more than great cheese is needed, preferably Mexican – Manchego would be a great filling cheese, as would Queso Blanco or Queso Oaxaca, (and Cotija or Queso Fresco would be great for topping). That said, here too the Leftover Rule is in full force – So use what needs to go. If you’ve got proteins, fine, if not, that’s fine too.

Toppings are also up for grabs. Certainly salsa or pico de gallo will go well, as will avocado, crema (Mexican sour cream), cilantro, shredded cabbage, citrus, more diced veggies, maybe a quick pickle of something – Whatever you have that needs to get used.

Enfrijoladas Toppings - Whatever ya got.

When preparing the sauce, you may simply add beans and some broth or stock to a pan, mash them to your liking, add some chiles, and call it good, because rustic is very good indeed. If you want or need to add more stuff, then you’ll want to get a blender involved. Either way, this is not a difficult or time consuming dish to make, which is another big reason it’s so popular.

 

Rustic Enfrijoladas

2-3 Cups of any cooked Bean, hopefully with some broth, (if not, chicken or veggie stock is fine)

9-12 Corn tortillas

Fresh, dried, or ground Chiles

Shredded Cheese for filling and, if desired, topping

Salsa or Pico de Gallo

Crema (or sour cream)

Leftover meat or poultry, if desired

Avocado oil for frying

If using fresh chiles, stem, seed, and fine dice.

Prepare salsa, pico, and other toppings as desired.

If using dried chiles, bring a small sauce pan of water to the boil and then remove from heat. Add however many chiles you desire and allow them to steep for 20-30 minutes until softened. Remove skins, tops, and seeds, and then mince.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add beans and mash by hand to a rough but even paste.

Add enough broth or stock to the beans to achieve the consistency of stew or a thick pasta sauce.

Add chiles to the beans and stir to incorporate. 

When the mix is heated through, reduce heat to warm.

In a second skillet over medium high heat, add a tablespoon of avocado oil and heat through.

Fry tortillas just enough to heat them through, but remain flexible.

To serve, add a generous swipe of bean sauce to a warm plate.

grab a tortilla, slather it with a thin layer of beans, and add cheese and any other fillings, then roll it up and place it seam side down on the plate. Repeat to desired serving size, then add a generous spoon or two of bean sauce to the tops of the rolled tortillas.

Serve immediately.

 

Urban’s Deluxe Enfrijoladas – Again, this is what I had on hand that needed to get used – It’s a guideline, not a rule, so have fun and use what you’ve got.

white bean enfrijolada sauce

For the Bean Sauce – 

3-4 Cups leftover beans

Bean Broth or Stock

9-12 Corn Tortillas

1+ Chiles of your choice, (I used 3 Serrano’s that needed to go.)

1-2 Tomatoes

3-4 Tomatillos

1/2 medium Onion

3-4 cloves fresh Garlic

1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar

1 Tablespoon dried Guajillo Chile

1/2 teaspoon fine ground Salt

Stem, core and halve veggies, then arrange on a baking sheet.

Veggies for enfrijolada sauce, ready to roast

Place on an upper middle rack in an oven on broil and cook until the skins blister.

Remove from heat and allow to cool enough to handle.

Roasted veggies for enfrijolada sauce

Wrap tortillas in metal foil and toss them into the hot oven to warm up (shouldn’t need any heat after roasting the veggies in there – You just want to warm them a little to encourage the sauce to stick during assembly.)

Add beans, roasted veggies, and vinegar to a blender vessel with a half cup of bean broth or stock. Process into a smooth sauce, adding more liquid as needed, to achieve the consistency of a thick soup or pasta sauce.

Transfer the sauce to a skillet over medium heat.

When the sauce is heated through, add guajillo chile and salt, and stir to incorporate. You may want to add more broth, stock, or seasoning to strike a balance you like.

Turn the heat down to low.

For the filling – 

Use any leftover meat, poultry, or what have you, if you wish. 

2 Cups of melting cheese

Dice up proteins and add it to a skillet over medium heat with a little stock or broth to moisturize and allow that to heat through.

Shred melting cheese.

For the toppings – Here again, use what you’ve got that needs to go – We went with,

Chopped Tomato

Diced Onion

Chopped Avocado

Chopped Cilantro

A quick pickle of sweet peppers, chiles, onion, cilantro (All veggies fine diced, in 3/4 Cup cider vinegar, 1/4 cup water, pinch of salt, three finger pinch of Mexican oregano.)

Shredded lettuce with sliced radish

Lime Wedges

Crema

Crumbled Queso Cotija 

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

 

For the Big Show –

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

Lightly rub a 9” x 11” baking dish with avocado oil.

Set up an assembly area where you can have your bean sauce and fillings side by side with your baking dish.

Enfrijolada assembly station

Spread a generous layer of the bean sauce evenly across the baking dish.

Enfrijolada baking dish ready for tortillas

Grab a tortilla and either dunk one side into the bean sauce, or use a spoon to do the same while you hold it – Whichever works easier for you. 

Add a nice even layer of sauce to the tortilla, then add fillings. 

Enfrijoladas dipped and ready for filling

Roll the tortilla up and place it seam side down in the baking pan.

Enfrijoladas dipped and filled

Repeat until you’ve filled the pan.

Add any and all remaining bean sauce to the tops of the tortillas.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños ready to bake

You can add more stuff there if you like – Tomato, onion, what have you.

Bake at 300° F for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Enfrijoladas Ebeños

Go wild.

BTW, none of mine survived contact with the enemy, which is as it should be…

Rancho Gordo – Making beans sexy again

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.

Some of the Rancho Gordo goods
Some of the Rancho Gordo goods

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.

these are not your average commodity beans
these are not your average commodity beans

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.

the Rancho Gordo label, delightfully campy and instantly recognizable
the Rancho Gordo label, delightfully campy and instantly recognizable

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.

Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP
Frijoles Vaqueros in the IP

Frijoles Vaqueros

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?

Veggie mise for the frijoles vaqueros
Veggie mise for the frijoles vaqueros

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).

sautéing the veggies and pork fat
sautéing the veggies and pork 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.

Real Deal Carnitas

So, I got this message from old friend and alert blog follower, Nancy ‘Nurk’ Swenson, about real deal Carnitas.

I’m looking for a recipe for pork carnitas. I made it about 3 years ago, but can’t find the recipe again. It started with melting lard, adding great spices (lots of orangey/yellowy ones, cumin etc). Then when it cooled enough to handle, you rubbed the pork roast/shoulder/piece of meat with the lard goo and double wrapped it in tin foil. It stayed overnight in the fridge. Then into a low oven in a dutch oven for like 8 hours. When you took it out there was a bunch of juice. You removed the tin foil, shredded the meat and over a 1/2 hour of occasional stirring, the juices sucked back into the meat. Lastly you threw it under the broiler to crisp up the edges. It was wonderful. Do you know this recipe or have a great one? We are having 10 people over for dinner and I want to make this again. Thanks. Love to you and Monica.

Well, first and foremost, love back to you and Steve! Naturally, I assumed that I sure do have a carnitas recipe onboard, and then I looked and… yeah, no. Hard to believe, but true, so it’s very much time to rectify that omission. So, Nurk? I got this, Pal.

Carnitas de Urban
Carnitas de Urban

First off, a bit of clarification – the literal translation of Carnitas is ‘little meats.’ This slice of heaven hails from the State of Michoacán, which lies due west of Mexico City, on the pacific side. A lot of folks seem to believe that carnitas are a specific vehicle, like a taco, burrito, tostada, etc – and that just ain’t the case – It’s the meat, the filling, the heart and soul of any and all such accoutrements. The typical cuts used to make carnitas are not unexpected – Here in El Norte, you’ll want a Boston Butt or similar heavily marbled shoulder cut, (and bone in, whenever you can get that). Mexican butchers call this cut the Espaldilla, and down there, it’s also used for stew meat and for making chorizo.

What you do with that cut to make carnitas is essentially confit – cooking pork in fat until the meat is meltingly tender and juicy. Confit is alive and well all around the world, especially since ‘experts’ stoped castigating animal fats for so many human ills. Confit began as a preservation method, sealing meat away from air and bacteria in a thick layer of fat. French versions are far and away the most widely known these days. There, the meat is salted, seasoned, and dried, then cooked low and slow to perfection. A second salting is followed by very careful removal of all meat remnants and juices from the fat, which is then poured back over the meat. Confit done this way will stay good for months, as it was intended to do – Tiding a family over from slaughter to the next.

What’s been lost over time is that fundamental use of confit for preserving food, rather than just flavoring it, along with the subtle depth and breadth of flavor that long, slow process of preparation, cooking, and preservation imparts, and that’s kind of too bad, frankly.

In Mexico, many cooks prepare carnitas by adding a shit ton of lard to a heavy, copper pan. When the lard is melted, the pork is immersed therein, along with seasoning – Usually some variation of chiles, garlic, and cumin. The meat is cooked low and slow until it’s fall apart tender, then the heat is turned up until the pork starts to crisp – At this juncture, it’ll shred easily, and can then be loaded into whatever – tacos, burritos, tortas, and what have you. Now that said, some folks sear the pork on high heat first, then do the low and slow, so really, there’s poetic license all over this dish. For my mind, searing or crisping can always be done right before service, and leaving that out leads to less loss of fat, more flavor, and a juicier, moister finished product – More on this below.

This kind of thing is wholly in keeping with our tradition of cooking something big at the beginning of the week. That makes for easy, fast meals in the ensuing days, as well as the opportunity to portion and freeze stuff for later inspiration. As such, when approaching carnitas, we’ll go for a truly big chunk of bone in, Boston Butt roast with lost of marbling.

Secondly, while I love fat, I really and truly don’t think it’s necessary to either get the cooking job done, or to impart adequate flavor when it comes down to it. The one we’re going to do up today is five and a half pounds, and as you can see, plenty fatty without being ridiculous. Believe me when I tell you, if you do a roast like this up low and slow, you’ll have all the fat you could possibly want or need, and then some – No additional lard needed, and you will get to use that in the end run. I’ll show you a brilliant cheat with this recipe that will recreate that elusive cooked in fat carnita taste, too.

Bone in Boston Butt pork roast
Bone in Boston Butt pork roast

And so on to cooking method. You don’t need a big, heavy copper pan, (although if you’ve got one, go wild). For stuff this big, we’ve got several options, depending on how you want to do it, so method goes before vessel. My preference is stand alone slow cooker, but you can certainly do this in your oven with a dutch oven or a braiser – Something with a nice, thick, heavy bottom that will store and slowly release heat over time. Whatever vessel you choose, you want your pork and aromatics to pretty much fill the thing up, with a few inches of head space to spare. That will assure that the melting fat from the pork surrounds the meat, and does its thing during the cooking process.

A lovely Boston Butt, ready for cooking
A lovely Boston Butt, ready for cooking

Now, an aside in honor of my Friend, Gloria Goodwin Raheja, who guest cheffed here the other week. Her enthusiasm for the instant pot, (along with that of damn near everybody on the Vietnamese cooking group I’m a member of), lead me to buy one for my birthday. They are pretty dang amazing, and as a Gloria noted, meats done in this manner come out divinely, so there ya go – No, it’s not low and slow, but if you’ve got an hour and a half to work with rather than six to eight, there’s nothing wrong with doing up your carnitas in one.

Now, on to seasoning. The dominant veggie notes here need to be chiles, peppers, tomato, and garlic. Whether you use a slow cooker or the oven, this is going to be the bed you cook your carnitas on. What we’re doing is more of a sofrito than anything, (more or less the Spanish base mix, as opposed to the Italian soffritto – See our bit on aromatic bases here, if you’ve not already.) For my mind, additional seasoning should be pretty minimal. What I use is our signature seasoning salt, a notably smoky blend with major chile, paprika, garlic and onion notes, and a hint of sage. To me, it’s perfect for stuff like this – You can find that recipe right here, but I’ll list an alternative for the recipe as well.

mis en place for carnitas
mis en place for carnitas

Notes:
1. Again, if you do a large roast as we suggest, you’re going to have a lot more than one night’s meal – That’s the whole idea, really. You want to do the cooking in one day, cool and then refrigerate your roast overnight, then do your first meal the next day. Plan ahead for portioning and freezing the meat.
2. Remember that a recipe is a guideline, not gospel – Do what you like in terms of heat level, etc. just don’t go too wild first time out if you’re not quite sure of what a given ratio will do to the whole – The big picture idea of carnitas is a delicate balance.

Carnitas de Urban

4-6 Pound Bone In, Boston Butt Pork Roast
3-6 Chiles, (whatever you like – Our go to are Jalapeño or Serrano)
6-8 small Sweet Peppers
1/2 medium sweet Onion
8-10 whole cloves Garlic
1 15 ounce can diced Tomatoes
6-8 sprigs fresh Cilantro
Urban Seasoning Salt, or
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon alderwood smoked Salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
1 teaspoon smoked Paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground red Chile
1/2 teaspoon crushed Sage

Fresh corn or flour Street Taco Tortillas

For Garnish –
Lime wedges
Salsa or Pico de Gallo
Sour Cream
Avocado wedges
Shredded Lettuce and Cabbage
Pickled Onions or Radishes
Tomatoes
Sweet Peppers
More Chiles

Prepare a slow cooker, Dutch oven, etc for use. If you’re using the oven, set a rack in a middle slot and preheat to 250° F.

Rinse and trim chiles, peppers, and onion. Trim and peel garlic cloves.

Rough chop chiles, peppers, and onion, leave garlic cloves whole.

Arrange veggies evenly around the base of the cooking vessel.

Rinse and pat roast dry.

Combine seasonings in a small mixing bowl.

Rub roast lightly with vegetable oil and cover every surface evenly with the seasoning blend.

Place roast in cooker, add tomatoes evenly over the top, then sprigs of cilantro.

Cook low and slow for 6-8 hours until the roast is fork tender and reads an internal temperature of 145 – 150° F.

Real deal carnitas, cooked low and slow
Real deal carnitas, cooked low and slow

Remove roast from cooker or oven and allow to cool in the cooking vessel, (You should plan for several hours of cooling – Never put hot food in the fridge or freezer.)

Once the pork has cooled, refrigerate it overnight, (or, if it’s done in the cold season and conditions allow, put it out on your porch overnight.)

Next day, skim the fat from the top of the cooking vessel and reserve – This is gold, don’t waste it.

Remove the pork and set that on a cutting board.

Pour off the cooking liquid through a colander or strainer – transfer to a clean mason jar and freeze for future soup or stew making. Discard the cooking veggies – They’re done like dinner after that long slow cook.

Portion the pork into meal sized chunks. Vacuum sealing is best, but if you don’t have one, you can place portions in an airtight container or jar and freeze, or wrap them tightly in a layer or two of metal foil. Make sure you mark what it is and when it hit the freezer, for future reference.

For dinner one, wrap however many tortillas you need in metal foil and set into a 150° F oven, on a middle rack.

Place a heavy, cast iron skillet on a burner over low heat, and add a tablespoon of the reserved pork fat.

Shred the pork, either by hand, or with two forks.

Prepare all your fixin’s as you see fit.

Carnitas, ready to load
Carnitas, ready to load

Increase the heat under the skillet to high, until the fat is sizzling.

Sear shredded carnitas in hot fat
Sear shredded carnitas in hot fat

Add the shredded pork to the hot pan and sear it, turning steadily with two forks, until it’s evenly and lightly browned.

Seared carnitas, good as it gets
Seared carnitas, good as it gets

Transfer to a serving bowl, and go wild – There won’t be any leftovers, guaranteed.

Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

This week, it’s time for another special guest chef. One of the things I love about social media, when done right, is the meaningful and lasting relationships that can be formed. For me personally, some of my dearest and closest friends, members of my real family, were first met online. Now, we vacation with them every year, and I can’t imagine not having that in our lives. What we get from stuff like this blog, or food groups on FB, or any other decent source, can and should be genuine connections that grow and prosper, even when we live worlds apart. Here, as elsewhere, the six degrees of separation principle is very much in play – I became FB friends with Gloria Goodwin Raheja through our Soul Sister, Christy Hohman – They met at a house concert in Crosslake, Minnesota, which is just a bit southeast of where we conduct the annual Stringfest Gathering that y’all have seen posted here for many years now – Andy Cohen was playing, and we met him last year – at Stringfest. For the final degree, here’s Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

Gloria is a Professor of Anthropology at the U of M, Twin Cities, from which she conducted many years of fieldwork and wrote extensively about rural northern India. For roughly the last decade, her research has been focused in Appalachia. Her front burner project is Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields, a book about music and the coming of industrial capitalism to the mountains.

Harry, the de facto head of Gloria’s household.
Harry, the de facto head of Gloria’s household.

Our online interaction is in keeping with many who haunt FB, namely what we’re cooking and what our pets are up to, (Her dog Harry, like our Bandito, is quite sure he is the de facto Head of Household, and strives mightily to train his humans on proper etiquette.) Like so many brilliant and driven people, Gloria loves to cook, and does so very well, indeed. She dabbles in Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, and Appalachian foods for people who like to eat, and she frequents the St. Paul Farmers Market, and other shops that offer local and ethically produced meats.

She has, of late, become a devotee of the incredibly popular kitchen tool, the instant cooker, (or multi-cooker). If you’re not familiar with this tool, then, well… I don’t know what to say – They’re ubiquitous in online cooking groups and sites. They are, fundamentally, programmable electronic pressure cookers. Instant Pot is a brand name, and hands down the most popular one out there. These things will pressure or slow cook, cook rice, sauté, steam, or warm, and advanced version add yoghurt making, cake baking, egg cooking, sous vide, and sterilizing to the menu.

While many a kitchen gadget gets bought or gifted and soon forgotten, these things seem to have serious legs. In a very authentic Vietnamese cooking forum I belong to, almost every home chef has and regularly uses an instant cooker. For dishes like Pho that normally take 24 to 48 hours to cook, an instant cooker can do the job in an hour or two – And believe me, if the folks on that site find the results not only acceptable, but preferable in many instances, there’s something to these cookers.

Regarding her Instant Pot, Gloria noted, “Well, we totally love ours, really. It’s so great for things like chili verde, ragus, and of course beans. Tonight we’re making black chickpeas with kale, Moroccan style. Chunks of lamb and pork turn out, well, divinely – I dislike having a lot of kitchen toys piling up, plus my counter space is quite limited, but I cleared a permanent space for it, after using it just once!” That’s a pretty solid endorsement, in my book.

Now, before we dive into that Chile Verde, let’s talk about beans, because this is another place where Gloria and I are much of a mind. When M and I lived down in Tejas, I became acquainted with Rancho Gordo, Steve Sando’s Napa, California based magnum opus of heirloom goodness, and specifically, with their heirloom beans – If you don’t know about them, y’all should. Steve took frustration with a lack of great local produce (while living in Napa, fer cryin’ out loud) from a gardening whim to a full blown conservation operation, and Rancho Gordo is the result. What Home roasting brought to coffee beans, Steve brought to heirloom beans. He writes, ‘All of my agricultural pursuits have been based on being someone who likes to cook but gets frustrated by the lack of ingredients, especially those that are native to the New World.’ What I learned living and cooking down south was a primal love for all things culinarily Mesoamerican, and frankly, no foodstuff speaks to that more clearly than beans do. Like tomatoes, beans were devastated by the green revolution, and it’s only through the tireless work of folks like Steve that we’re blessed with what was and what shall be, if we’re even halfway smart.

Rancho Gordo’s heirloom Eye of the Goat beans
Rancho Gordo’s heirloom Eye of the Goat beans

And now, on to Gloria’s Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde. What I love about this, and I mean dearly love, is what she has to say about the genesis of this recipe, because folks? If you’ve been here at all, you know my mantra – Here’s a recipe, try it, and then do what you like to it and make it yours – That’s exactly what she did.

She writes, ‘I got the idea for this dish from Coco Morante’s “The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook,” but I modified it quite a bit. For one thing, I made my own roasted tomatillo and poblano and serrano chile salsa instead of used store-bought salsa, and for another thing I used heirloom Ojo de Cabra beans instead of canned pinto beans.’

Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.
Gloria’s glorious Turkey Chile Verde with Heirloom Eye of the Goat Beans and Homemade Salsa Verde.

For the tomatillo salsa.

1 1/2 Pounds Tomatillos
5 cloves Garlic cloves
2 Poblano chiles
2 Serrano chiles
1 bunch Cilantro

Remove papery husks from tomatillos, rinse well, and cut in half.

Rinse chiles and cilantro. Stem serranos and rough chop. Rough chop cilantro

On a foil lined baking sheet, arrange tomatillos cut side down, along with the unpeeled garlic cloves.

Position an oven rack 5” to 6” under your broiler. Broil for 5-7 minutes, turning evenly, until tomatillos are lightly blackened.

Remove from oven, set aside to cool.

Arrange poblanos on a foil-lined pan, place them under a broiler until blackened all around.

Transfer poblanos to a a paper bag with the top folded closed. This allows the cooling chiles to steep in their own steam as they cool, which adds a bit to their flavor, and helps loosen the skins – You can also do this in a baking dish or casserole with a tight fitting lid.

When the poblano are cool enough to handle, remove the skin, stem, and deseed.

Skin the roasted garlic.

Add all ingredients to a food processor or blender, and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and evenly mixed.

Transfer to a mixing bowl or glass jar.

For the beans.

1 Lb Eye of the Goat Beans (Yes, use what you’ve got, but honestly – Try these!)
8 Cups Water
3 cloves Garlic, trimmed and peeled
2 Bay Leaves
2 tsps Sea Salt

Gloria cooked her unsoaked beans in an Instant Pot, with all ingredients shown, for about thirty minutes, and used three cups of the cooked beans for this recipe.

If you don’t have an instant pot, the oven method works great and is pretty speedy to boot.

Set a rack in a middle position and preheat oven to 325° F.

Rinse beans in a single mesh strainer or colander, checking for debris.

Add beans, garlic, bay, and salt to a 4 quart (or larger) dutch oven, braiser, or baking dish with a tight fitting lid.

Add enough fresh water to cover the beans by 1”.

Cover and bake for 60 – 75 minutes. When beans are slightly firmer than you want them, they’re ready to go to the next step.

For the Chile Verde.

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Pound ground Turkey
3 Cups cooked Beans
1 3/4 Cups Salsa Verde
1 Cup Chicken Broth
1 medium Onion
1 bunch fresh Cilantro
2 Poblano or Anaheim chiles
2 Serrano chiles
3 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon dried Oregano
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
½ to ¼ teaspoon Cayenne Chile flake

Peel, trim, and dice onion, garlic, and chiles. Rinse and chop 1/4 Cup cilantro.

For an Instant Pot-
Select the Sauté setting on the Instant Pot and heat the oil.

Add the turkey and sauté, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula as it cooks, for about 5 minutes, until cooked through and no traces of pink remain.

Add the onion, chiles, garlic, salt, oregano, cumin, and cayenne and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes, until the onion has softened and is translucent.

Stir in the beans, salsa verde, and broth.

Secure the lid and set the Pressure Release to Sealing.

Press the Cancel button to reset the cooking program, then select the Bean/Chili setting and set the cooking time for 20 minutes at high pressure.

Let the pressure release naturally for at least 10 minutes, then move the Pressure Release to Venting to release any remaining steam.

Open the pot and stir in the chopped cilantro.

For stove top cooking –
Add oil to a stock pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat.

Add turkey and sauté until lightly browned and no pink remains, about 4-6 minutes.

Transfer meat to a mixing bowl. Add onion and chiles and sauté for 3-5 minutes, until onion begins to turn translucent. Season lightly with sea salt.

Add garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates.

Add chicken stock and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all the good stuff.

Add beans, salsa verde, meat, salt, oregano, cumin, and cayenne and stir well to incorporate.

Reduce heat to medium low and cook, covered, for at least 1 hour, and more is fine.

Add cilantro, stir to incorporate, and serve.

And of course, Big Thanks to Gloria for this delightful dish!

Real Deal Queso

Saw a social media post by a friend regarding queso, that incredibly delicious, ephemeral joy from points south. Now, this gal is a Fort Worth, (AKA Fo’t Wuth, Cowtown), born and bred Texan, a budding food professional, and she knows what she likes. She’s an unabashed advocate of the ‘there’s only two ingredients that go into real queso,’ school. Frankly, I’m not, although I’ll admit, I’ll eat the hell out of a fresh batch of that stuff when it’s offered, ‘cause we are gathered here today to talk about queso – Real deal queso.

Cheese sauces are ubiquitous in every country that makes and eats cheese. It’s a natural progression to think about changing the texture of something you love, and heat is one of the great ways to do just that – It also pretty much requires one to eat the results right away, which doesn’t suck as a concept, either.

Queso has Mexican roots, and the common saw about this dish is that it comes strictly from northern Mexico, just under the border with Los Estados Unidos – the true roots are deeper and broader than that. That fact also belies the mistaken belief that ‘real’ queso is made with Velveeta or an analog thereof – It stems from far more honorable cheeses – real cheeses – so, sorry Tejas – It just ain’t so.

In fact, many joints in Texas, either Tex-Mex or regional authentic, have long gotten away from using that pasteurized processed cheese food, (AKA, substances engaged in cheese-like activity), or never used it for their queso in the first place, thank the gods. My fave authentic place in Fort Worth, Benito’s, in the hospital district, has always used real Mexican cheese in their stunningly delicious queso flameado, (more about that version in a bit.)

Now, that version made with Velveeta? There are actually a couple derivations of that, too. One school likes the cheese-like stuff with salsa mixed in, while the purists insist it’s Velveeta with Rotel canned tomato and green chile blend. The problem with this is, once again, that the cheese isn’t really cheese at all – It’s made from, and I quote – Milk, Water, Whey, Milk Protein Concentrate, Milkfat, Whey Protein Concentrate, Sodium Phosphate, Contains 2% or less of: Salt, Calcium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Alginate, Enzymes, Apocarotenal, Annatto, Cheese Culture. There’s a reason it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, has a seven week shelf life, and doesn’t even need to be refrigerated after it’s been opened – Get the picture? The other issue is the Rotel stuff – Now, I like their products, but with anything canned, you need a long, slow cooking process to get that metallic taste out of the picture, and queso is not that kind of vehicle. So, that said, on to the real deal.

Think of Queso as a vehicle for good things
Think of Queso as a vehicle for good things

Queso, (sometimes chile con queso – literally chiles with cheese), speaks to what rightfully should be in the mix. Of course there are variants, as there should be, from queso flameado, to fundido, and choriqueso, to a myriad of one offs – Those will depend on where they’re made and who the chef is, of course. As with all signature dishes, everyone makes one, and theirs is the best, (usually, they’re right). Queso is simply a vehicle for whatever combination tastes good to you.

It is true that the most popular version found in El Norté hailed originally from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, home to its namesake cheese. Queso Chihuahua is a fairly firm, pale yellow, cows milk cheese, with a rich, buttery flavor. It’s also known as queso menonita, after the Mennonite communities established there in the 19th century – They’re the folks that introduced the stuff. It’s also known as queso campresino, which speaks to the production method – very much like that used to make cheddar, and in fact, queso chihuahua is considered a member of cheddar family. Like that famous cousin, this stuff starts out mild, then develops notable sharpness and depth of character with age – It also melts really well, which makes it a great cheese for queso sauce, si? This also explains why good, fresh cheddar makes great queso and is not, as some purists would claim, a blasphemous choice for the dish.

No, your Queso needn’t be white to be good, so long as you use great cheese.
No, your Queso needn’t be white to be good, so long as you use great cheese.

That said, great Mexican cheeses are far more available than they used to be, and if you’ve never tried them, you should – There are several that are go to’s for queso. These are one of the very few pleasant products of the Spanish presence in Mexico, as the locals didn’t have anything to do with dairy prior to the invasion. Great cheese is now a long standing tradition down there, with many stellar examples of the art – They’re ranked in the top ten of world production and consumption. Mexican Manchego, unlike its sheeps milk Spanish cousin, is made from cows milk. It has a distinct, nutty taste and melts well. Queso Oaxaca is a soft, mild white string cheese – It’s also a good melter. There’s also Asadero, a semi-soft, creamy cheese that comes from Chihuahua that’s similar to Monterrey Jack. Some folks mistakenly call this queso quesadilla, which will generally get you laughed at down in Mexico. There are many, many more small batch, one off and regional cheeses in Mexico, some of which have laws protecting the use of their names, like Cotija and queso de bola from Chiapas. Sadly, you’re unlikely to find most of them up here.

Any and all of those will make a fine queso, which speaks to the fact that your version need not be made from a single cheese. Like great mac and cheese, a blend will provide a deeper and more complex taste profile, which is rarely a bad thing. For that matter, you needn’t go to and buy cheese specifically to make queso – It’s often made to use up what’s in the pantry and ready to go. Cheddar, Jack, Swiss, Colby, whatever you’ve got will do just fine. Next time you’re shopping, check out the Mexican varieties for something special.

One thing you’ll see on a lot of menus is the claim that they use only ‘white cheese’ for their queso, without much elaboration past that, unless you ask. The primary reason for this, frankly, is to differentiate themselves from the velveeta versions – Good to know when you’re out for a nosh. In any case, it’s not necessary to only use white cheese when you make it at home – yellow cheddar will not get you in trouble with the queso policia. Hell, I’ve used leftover Brie in the mix and been very pleased with the results.

Now, those famous derivations, queso fundido, choriqueso, and queso flameado? The differences between the them are this – The first two are melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo, and the last one is melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo set on fire – Yep, that’s pretty much it. All are fundamentally the same, though again, every place has a mix of their own, adding onion, garlic, tomato, sweet peppers, and various spices, and yeah, in a good place like Benito’s, the flameado is done table side, flambéed right there as you watch and cheer.

When done correctly, the cheese is prepared separately from the chiles, chorizo, and any additional spices, and then combined right before the dish is served, just like Benito’s does it. Flameado is, of course, flambéed with tequila that has been briefly warmed on a stove top to make it that much more flammable. When it’s prepared at table, a long careful pour of the flaming, melted cheese into the other ingredients makes for quite a show, but please – As the saying goes, don’t try this at home if you’ve already put a dent in the tequila bottle.

Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas
Great Queso deserves fresh tortillas

Here’s our go to version. As with all things recipe, do what you like. You do not need chorizo if you don’t want the full Monty, but done up like this, it’s not an appetizer, it’s a meal. Again, if you don’t have the Mexican cheeses, just use a blend of what you do have in the way of melting cheeses – It’ll be just fine.

Queso de UrbanMonique

1/2 Cup Chihuahua, Asadero, or Oaxaca Cheese
1/2 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar
1/4 Cup Monterrey Jack
1/4 Pound fresh Chorizo
4-6 Hatch Chiles (Anaheim’s will do)
2-4 Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles
1/2 Sweet Onion
1 Tomato
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
6-8 stems fresh Cilantro
2 Ounces Tequila (No rotgut)
1 Ounce Avocado Oil
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper

Consider frying up fresh tortilla chips with a great batch of Queso
Consider frying up fresh tortilla chips with a great batch of Queso

Fresh tortillas and tortilla chips
Fresh Pico de Gallo or Salsa

If you like your tortillas or chips warm, preheat oven to 200° F, wrap them in foil, and place on a middle rack.

Grate all cheeses and blend thoroughly.

Rinse, stem, seed, devein, and dice all chiles.

Peel, trim and dice the onion.

Peel, trim and mince the garlic.

Rinse, trim and dice the tomato.

Rinse and mince the cilantro.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the chorizo, about 3-5 minutes. Remove to a plate lined with clean paper towel and set aside.

Deglaze the hot pan with the tequila, scraping up all the dark bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add the oil to the hot pan, and when heated through, add onion and chiles – Sauté until chiles soften and onion starts to turn translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, 1-2 minutes.

Add the tomato, cilantro, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to incorporate. Cook until those ingredients are heated through, about another 2-3 minutes.

Remove the sautéed veggie blend to the plate with the chorizo. Remove the pan from heat, wipe any excess oil from it, then return drained chorizo and veggies to the pan to stay warm.

Remove tortillas and/or chips from oven and set aside.

Preheat oven to broil and set a rack in a slot that leaves about 6” from the broiler element.

Place cheese in an 8” x 8” oven proof casserole or baking pan. Broil until the cheese is completely melted, bubbling, and starting to brown, about 4-6 minutes.

Bring cheese pan to the table and set on a trivet or hot pad. Carefully add veggie and chorizo blend to the cheese and stir to incorporate.

Scarf it all down with icy cold Mexican beer.

¡Salsa Espectacular!

¡Esto es un Salsa Espectacular!

Raspberry Pico de Gallo - A slice of Heaven in a bowl
Raspberry Pico de Gallo – A slice of Heaven in a bowl

Open your fridge and look at the door side – Chances are good that what you’ll see there are condiments – in ours, you find mustards, relish, horseradish, harissa, ketchup, mayo, sriracha, and of course, salsa. Those last three illustrate big changes in what folks in this country like and buy most of, in the ever-changing condiment world. In 2011, mayo was King. By 2014, salsa had surpassed all, (for the second time – More on that later), and as of last year, sriracha topped regular old salsa for the win. Interesting, is it not? Think about it and it makes great sense. Sure, the old standbys still star on sandwiches, and as constituents in sauces, salads, and the like – but salsa can do much more than any of those, and, well, sriracha is good with damn near anything.

Of course, salsa is still king, because sriracha is, after all, exactly that – Salsa, and not very different from the predominantly Mexican varieties we’re used to here. I say varieties, but truth be told, us folks up here in El Norte are far from well schooled in the stunning pantheon that is Mexican salsa – And that’s just speaking of Mexico, let alone the rest of Central and South America. Trust me when I tell you that you’re really missing something spectacular if that’s the case for you. Today, we’re out to fix that.

I’ll provide links to several recipes that you’ll find here, and add a few new ones as well. The rest of this is kind of a primer, designed to hopefully show you something new, pique your interest, and get you digging for a variation you can call your own. You’ll also notice I’m not going to describe a whole lot of parings, and that’s done on purpose – What you like salsa on – what kind on what things – That’s your gig, and discovering for yourself is a hell of a lot more fun than reading what I think you should eat, yeah?

Many Americanos assume that the term salsa is purely Mexican, but it’s definitively not. Salsa means ‘sauce’ in Spanish, Italian, and Greek. The term derives from the Latin word ‘salsus’, meaning salted. I think it’s an interesting fact that, while touched with sweet, heat, herbs, and spices, it’s still that salty, savory bass note that defines the salsa rhythm section. Of course, sauces didn’t start out that way anywhere that lacked tomatoes – That makes the salsa we’re used to a true native of Mexico, Central, and South America. It wasn’t until the Spaniards caused all their mayhem in the new world that the tomato made its way over to Europe, and then basically conquered the world.

Salsa began with the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan peoples. The Spanish were intrigued, and termed the piquant blend of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, and spices ‘salsa’ as far back as the late 16th century – Then they took it back home with them. While those three legendary civilizations largely didn’t survive, their salsas did, and continue to flourish throughout the Americas. It’s these Mexican staples that largely flavor things up here in the north.

One version of the stuff, ubiquitously known as ‘hot sauce,’ ( Basically chiles, vinegar, and salt, AKA, what’s in sriracha), caught on quite early here in America – Maybe earlier than you’re aware of – That’s particularly interesting in light of the fact that, by the mid 20th century, a fair number of those chiles and brands were very hard to find, having been driving out by post WWII food homogeneity. Yet the first bottled hot sauce, powered by cayenne chiles, was offered for sale in Massachusetts, back in 1807. In 1849, Louisiana banker Colonel Maunsell White planted the first crop of Tabasco chiles north of the border – Ten years later, Maunsell marketed the first bottles of ‘Tobasco’ chile Sauce, and Edmund McIlhenny plants some seeds obtained from Maunsell on his property – Avery Island, Louisiana. In 1868, McIlhenny poured his aged sauce into used cologne bottles and sent it out as samples, resulting in thousands of orders. By the 1860s, you could buy bird chile powered sauce in New York City. By 1898, a former McIlhenny employee started up B. F. Trappey & Sons, and another legendary sauce was born.

¡Salsa Espectacular!
¡Salsa Espectacular!

In 1917, Henry Tanklage introduced La Victoria Salsa Brava, a traditional Mexican style salsa still in production today. La Victoria’s red, green, and enchilada sauces, along with Old El Paso, (which was formed in 1917, but didn’t start making Tex-Mex stuff until 1969), are the stuff that introduced generations of gringos to Mexica and Tex Mex cooking. It’s reasonable to say that the full circle of originators can be closed with David and Margaret Pace’s introduction of his namesake salsa in 1947. Pace noted that, “In ’47, my sauce bottles exploded all over the grocery shelves because I couldn’t get the darned formula right.” Those were simpler time, without a doubt. By the mid 1980s, the salsa craze was in full swing, and by the early ’90’s, salsa outsold all other condiments for the first time.

Salsa, as most of us know it, is a play on Salsa Roja, a tomato based, cooked salsa, usually containing onion and chile, with hints of garlic and cilantro. It’s what you get when you sit down at damn near any Mex joint in the U.S. As simple as it is, the range of quality and taste is huge. I argue that you can reliably learn much about the restaurant you’re about to patronize by how good that first dish of salsa is – If it’s inspired – nuanced, with obvious care given to balance and the overall flavor palette, you’re about to eat good food. If it’s dull, lifeless, tastes old or made from crappy ingredients, well… I’ve been known to get up and go elsewhere. The lions share of American store bought salsa is salsa roja, regardless of how schmancy it may sound. Other popular roja derivatives include ranchera, taqueria, and brava. Many, many derivations on this theme have been made and are sold, most of which feature various levels of heat, (from mild to truly stupid), roasting of the constituents, or exotic additions. Those are all great, but if you find something you like, what’s far greater is for you to dissect that recipe and make one of your own – That’s what the folks who sell that stuff did, so why shouldn’t you?

Pico de Gallo - Delicious, whatever the root of the name
Pico de Gallo – Delicious, whatever the root of the name

Probably the next most well known version is Pico de Gallo, which literally translates to ‘rooster’s beak.’ There are competing tales for the origin of the name, from the fact that serrano chiles kinda look like a birds beak, to the ‘chicken feed’ consistency of well made Pico, to the early propensity to eat it by grabbing a pinch between dialing finger and thumb – You get to decide on that one… Pico is a Salsa Cruda, raw salsas that need nor want cooking. From a straight mix of tomato, onion, chile, and cilantro, to blends made with corn, fruit, seeds, nuts, or more exotic veggies, they’re a delight and a must make. Our raspberry Pico is stunningly good, and illustrates why you see some kind of acid in most of them – Be it citrus, mango, berries, or a splash of vinegar, that slightly sweet counterpunch and bite makes amazing things happen.

Salsa Verde, is, of course, green. Verdes are usually cooked sauces made with tomatillos, that pre-Colombian Nightshade relative native to pretty much everywhere in the Americas except the far north. Tomatillos have a bunch of pectin, so they gel up nicely and form a rich Sauce that sticks to what you put it on. Mixed with chiles, onion, garlic, and cilantro, they have a sublime, early flavor that goes well with many things.

Salsa Ranchera is a roasted red sauce made from tomatoes, chiles, and a spice blend. It’s typically blended to a smooth consistency and served warm. If you’re making huevos rancheros, it’s a must have.

Salsa Negra
Salsa Negra

Salsa Negra is not well know up here, but it should be. A combination of chiles, garlic, spices, and oil, it’s pungent and delightful, more like a Mexican style harissa or sambal than a salsa roja, and is much more potent. See our recipe below.

Farther south, there are many iconic salsas, some of which we’ve covered, and some you need to check out.

Chimichurri, that delightfully pungent mix of parsley, onion, garlic, and chiles in oil and vinegar, is the most popular thing in Argentina and Uruguay, and for good reason. Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Salsa de Lazano - Costa Rican gold
Salsa de Lazano – Costa Rican gold

In Costa Rica, the ubiquitous table condiment is Salsa Lizano, a smooth, delicate brown sauce that is, frankly, highly addictive. There’s a recipe below.

In Peru, the go to is Peri Peri. Its more like harissa than most South American salsas, mainly because the most fiery and traditional version is powered by African birds eye chiles, which truly do pack a wallop. You can make it with less incendiary stuff, and many folks down there do. Recipe down below for you.

And then, from the Caribbean, Cuba, and the Yucatán, there’s mojo, the heavenly marinade that powers great carne asada – You’ll find that over on this page.

So, there you have it, a salsa map to go wild with. Tonight, I’m gonna do pork tenderloin tacos, with two fresh picos, one corn, one berry – What are you making?

 

Carrot Salsa

1 Pineapple
1 large Carrot
1/2 small Sweet Onion
1-2 Jalapeño Chiles
1/4 small Red Bell Pepper
5-6 sprigs fresh Cilantro
1/2 fresh small Lemon
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Sea Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste

Peel, core, trim pineapple, and dice 2 Cups.

Peel, trim and grate 2/3 Cup of the carrot.

Peel, trim and fine dice the onion and pepper.

Trim, devein and de-seed the Jalapeño, (or leave all that if you like the heat, and you can always use hotter chiles – I should write this into every recipe, just for David Berkowitz – The DB Rule ?)

Mince the Cilantro.

Throw all that into a non-reactive mixing bowl. Add the lemon thyme, lemon juice, and zest. Season lightly with Salt and Pepper.

Refrigerate covered for at least an hour, then remove, remix and taste – Adjust seasoning as needed.

 

Salsa Negra

EThis stuff was born to power rice and beans, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s incredible on a whole lot more than that – Put this on roasted Brussels sprouts and suddenly, you live Brussels sprouts…

8-10 cloves Black Garlic (Readily available at many Asian groceries and online, this aged Garlic is more intense, sweeter, and notably darker, hence the name – It is basically slowly caramelized over a long period of time, and it’s amazing. If you don’t have that and the jones hits you, see below)
8-10 cloves fresh Garlic
2-4 fresh Chiles, (Guajillo, Serrano, or Árbol if you can get them, if not, use 1 ounce of guajillo and árbol each, reconstituted)
3/4 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Cumin seed.
Sea Salt

* If you don’t have black garlic, in a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add a couple Tablespoons of avocado oil and allow to heat through. Stem and peel a whole head of garlic, and slice big cloves in half. Pack a nice, solid layer of garlic onto the pan and reduce heat to medium low. Keep an eye on things and stir occasionally. Let the garlic cook until it’s deeply browned, aromatic, and soft, then use that for the recipe.

Peel, trim and mince black and fresh garlic.

Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (Or apply the DB rule)

Pulse the Cumin seed in a spice grinder until their roughly broken up, but not powdered.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add the oil and allow to heat through. Add the chiles and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the chiles start to brown and and are quite fragrant.

Remove from heat and pour into a non-reactive jar or bowl. Add the garlic, vinegar, agave, cumin, and a teaspoon of salt. Mix well, then allow to cool, covered, to room temperature.

Will last for a couple of weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.

 

Salsa Lizano

1 1/2 Cups Vegetable Broth
1-2 Chiles, (Guajillo or Serrano are both good)
1/2 small Sweet Onion
2-3 Baby Carrots
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1/2 fresh Lemon
1 Tablespoon distilled White Vinegar
2 teaspoons Blackstrap Molasses
2 teaspoons pickling Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin

 

Peel, trim, and fine dice carrot and onion.

Stem chiles, cut in half, then devein and deseed.

In a heavy skillet over medium high heat, add the chiles and pan roast for 3-5 minutes until they start to blister and get quite fragrant.

Add the veggie broth, onion, and carrot. Allow to heat through until it simmers, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few more minutes.

Zest lemon half.

Strain the cooked veggies, reserving the broth. Add veggies to a large mixing bowl.

Add Agave Nectar, vinegar, lemon juice and zest, molasses, cumin, and salt to the mix.

Add 1 cup of the reserved broth to the bowl.

Process with a stick blender, (use your regular blender if, gods forbid, you don’t have a stick). Blend to a smooth, even consistency. If you want super smooth, run the processed sauce through a single mesh strainer, otherwise just leave it rustic.

It’ll last a good two weeks in clean glass, refrigerated.

 

Peri Peri Sauce – Peruvian Rocket Fuel

1/2 Cup African Birds Eye Chiles, ( árbol, birds beak, cherry, or red serranos will work fine too)
1 Red Onion
8 cloves Garlic
2 small Tomatoes
1 small Red Bell Pepper
1 large Lemon
3 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2-3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
2 teaspoons Smoked Paprika
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
2 Bay Leaves, (Turkish or California, as you prefer)

Place whole chiles, onion, bell Pepper, chiles, and peeled garlic on a rimmed baking sheet under a high broiler. Broil for 2-3 minutes, until veggies start to blister, then turn – Repeat until all sides are done, remove from heat. Once the veggies are cool enough to handle,

Stem, seed, and devein chiles and bell pepper, mince garlic, fine dice onion, chiles, and pepper.

Set up to blanch tomatoes- One pot of boiling water, with an ice water bath next to that. Pop the tomatoes in for about 30-45 seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon and immerse them fully into the ice water bath until fully cooled.

Remove tomatoes, peel of skins, and rough chop.

Zest and quarter the lemon.

In a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, add all prepped veggies, agave nectar, paprika, salt, pepper, oregano, and bay leaves. Mix well, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to just maintain that, and cook for 25-30 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

Add cooked ingredients to a blender vessel, then add lemon juice, and vinegar, then process blender until the sauce is nice and smooth.

Finally, while processing add a slow drizzle of oil, allowing the sauce to take it up at its preferred rate.

You may run it though a single mesh strainer, or leave it rustic.

It’ll last a good week refrigerated in clean glass.

Try it on chicken, pork, or burgers.

 

 

Puerco Pibil – Yucatán Magic.

My friend Shane is a fine cook in her own right, especially so since she lives on a moored boat in the Skagit river and has a teeny, tiny little kitchen. The other day, she posted about ‘A splash of tequila for the puerco pibil and one for the chef,’ and a lightbulb went off. It’s been a long, long time since I’d prepared this delightful Yucatecan specialty.

The heartbeat of this recipe is the marinade and the low and slow cooking method – Things as old as the land it springs from – the word Pibil may well stem from the Mayan noun for roast, but it’s come to mean the specific marinade used for this dish. The pinnacle of the art is Cochinita Pibil, a suckling pig wrapped in banana leaves and cooked low and slow in a pit dug in the ground, with hot rocks as the heat source – Very similar to traditions from the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands, among other hot spots.

The rocket fuel here is a highly acidic marinade, Pibil, focused on bitter orange, (AKA Seville orange) – That’s pretty legendary stuff, and for good reason – It originated in Southeast Asia, but has taken root all around the world as cooks have discovered its legendary qualities and transplanted variants across the globe. Bitter orange is the go to source for British marmalade, as it has very high pectin content and sets quite firmly. Bitter orange came to the Yucatán via the Spanish, stayed and spread somewhat – It’s found throughout the Caribbean, Florida, and other parts of the American Deep South. Up here in Washington State, not so much, as with a lot of the temperate north. You can get marinades and such that call themselves bitter orange, but frankly, that stuff is kinda like blended scotch – Two cups of Glenlivet in a barrel of grain alcohol. Finding pure bitter orange juice is harder and rarer, so we’re forced to approximate, which thankfully isn’t too hard to do.

Annatto de Achiote
Annatto de Achiote

The other vital leg to pibil is Annatto, the seed of the Achiote tree, also known as the Lipstick tree. Annatto is widely used as a food coloring – It’s what makes cheddar yellow in many iterations, but that’s selling it short. Annatto is subtle, but necessary in a whole bunch of Mexican recipes, and for good reason – I’ve heard it described as smelling like cinnamon or nutmeg, but I’ve never found those notes – What it imparts to me is a base earthiness, with hints of nuts and pepper – It’s hard to describe, but the fact is, if it’s missing from a recipe to which it’s seminal, like pibil, then you know right away, and the recipe just ain’t right.

The other musts for this recipe are a proper marinating phase, and a relatively low and slow cook, both of which are easy to do, either inside or out. Here’s our take on this classic dish. Note that we leave you wide latitude in the heat constituent – As with many things, there are plenty of recipes out there touting hefty amounts of seriously hot chiles for pibil, and frankly, that’s not how it’s typically done down south. If you want to make it nuclear, go for it, but know that the true beauty of pibil is the marriage of all the ingredients, without one swamping the rest – And for the record, I used fresh Fresno chiles and they were lovely.

One final note – Annatto is, as described, a colorant, and a pretty potent one at that – It will color your skin, your sink, your counter tops, and anything else it gets in contact with, so be cognizant and careful.

Puerco Pibil de UrbanMonique

2 Pounds Pork Roast, (Butt, Shoulder, Loin are all fine.)
1 Small Lemon
1/2 Cup Orange Juice
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
2 cloves Garlic
2+ whole Chiles (anything from Anaheim to Habañero)
2 Tablespoons Anatto seed
1 teaspoon whole Black Pepper Corns
1/2 teaspoon Cumin seed
2 Whole Cloves
3 Allspice Berries
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Tequila

As we always note, it’s best to use whole spices, and I trust that you are – If not, just roll with it.

Zest the lemon and add that and the juice to a non-reactive mixing bowl.

Add the orange juice, vinegar, and tequila.

Combine all dry ingredients in a spice grinder, or mortise, and process/grind to a fine, consistent powder.

Add all dry ingredients to the wet and blend thoroughly.

Pibil - Yucatán rocket fuel
Pibil – Yucatán rocket fuel

Cut pork into roughly 1/2″ chunks, and transfer those to a one gallon ziplock bag.

Cut your pork to roughly 1/2" chunks
Cut your pork to roughly 1/2″ chunks

Pour the marinade into the bag and seal, then shake to thoroughly coat the meat.

Marinate for a minimum of four hours and as long as six – Don’t exceed that, as the degree of acidity in the pibil can and will make mush of your meat if you let if work too long.

Preheat oven to 300° F

Preferably, you want cast iron, or enameled cast iron for the cooking vessel. Choose something that will not let the meat spread out too much. Pour the meat and marinade into the dish/pan and tamp it down lightly. Cover with foil.

Choose a cooking vessel that's not too big.
Choose a cooking vessel that’s not too big.

Bake for 90 minutes and then check temperature and texture. When your meat is 160° F and fork tender, remove from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes, covered.

Low and slow Puerco Pibil
Low and slow Puerco Pibil

Serve as tacos, or loose with rice, beans, quick pickled onions, fresh cotija cheese, or whatever else floats your boat.

Gotta have the accoutrement
Gotta have the accoutrement
Tacos de Puerco Pibil
Tacos de Puerco Pibil