What does bay leaf do for our cooking, anyway?

When you make soup, or stew, or any number of sauces at home, you add a bay leaf or two, right? Ever wonder why you do that – I mean, really give it some thought? I’ll be honest – I hadn’t, so I guess it’s time to ask – What does bay leaf do for our cooking, anyway?

Full disclosure, a social media acquaintance sent me a link to a new-agey treatise on bay leaf. This thing claimed that, ‘recent scientific studies have proven’ that bay leaf converted triglycerides to monounsaturated fats, eliminates heartburn, acidity, and constipation, regulates bowel movements and blood sugar, makes the human body produce insulin, eliminates bad cholesterol, protects the heart from seizures and strokes, relieves insomnia, anxiety, kidney stones and cures infections – No freakin’ wonder we put them in soup!

Most if not all of those claims are, at best, gross exaggeration and distortion of facts. The real dead giveaway was this line – ‘Do you know that if you boil some bay leaves in a glass of water and taste it, it will have no flavor?’

My answer to that is, ‘do you know that that statement is complete bullshit?’ Either the author has never actually done the experiment, or did so with bad bay leaves. Had they done it properly, they’d have discovered a much more potent and nuanced result.

Sweet bay laurel tree

Before we dive into that, let’s define what exactly the bay leaf in our pantry is – it’s Sweet Bay, AKA Bay Laurel, or Lauris nobilis. It’s native to the Mediterranean, and cultivated commercially all around that region, as well as France, Spain, Mexico, and Portugal. Now for the record, the other bay we see in a lot of pantries is California Bay, and that’s a whole different beast, Umbullularia californica – it’s far more potent than sweet bay, with longer, narrower leaves.

Dried Sweet Bay leaves
Dried Sweet Bay leaves
Dried California Bay leaves
Dried California Bay leaves

Problem is, a lot of purveyors just call their stuff ‘Bay Leaf,’ and that can make things tough on us home cooks. Different growing areas produce leaves with subtle differences you may like or not – In any event, it’d be nice to know from whence yours came, wouldn’t it? Good outfits like World Spice and Penzey’s will tell you that information. 

It’s good to keep both the sweet and California versions on hand, by the way. Because they both do have a place in our cooking. While California bay is intense and medicinal, the sweet, (often called Turkish), is lighter, more nuanced and savory. The latter is far and away my personal go to, for the record. California bay is nice, in moderation, in low and slow soups and stews where time and temperature can simmer out the lion’s share of the more volatile constituents that spring forth early on in the cooking process. In any event, you’d be well advised to find out what variety you have, and like best.

Sweet Bay is complex, with dozens of volatile compounds onboard each leaf. The heavy hitters are cineole, pinine, linalool, and methyl eugenol. Interestingly enough, most of those compounds are also found in basil. California Bay is a bit different, packing cineole, pinine, and sabinine – that last one is responsible for things like the spiciness of black pepper, nutmeg, and carrot oil. Cineole, linalool, and pinine are terpenes, a rather volatile chemical family that has much to do with a wide variety of powerful scents in the natural world. Their highly reactive nature makes them some of the first things we smell when bay leaves are used in cooking. Methyl eugenol is a phenolic found in over 450 plants, and plays a vital role in pollination – how about that in your spaghetti sauce? These compounds are fascinating, especially when we think about how they’ve made that journey from chemical warning sign, or pollination attractor, to our dining table.

On to that experiment then, since that’s the best way to ascertain that what you’ve got in your pantry is packin’. Set a small pan of water to boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Toss in a couple bay leaves of your choice, let them do their thing for 3 to 5 minutes, and then stick your nose down there.

The first things you get will be those fleeting terpenes. If you’ve got California bay, those notes will be the big medicinal ones, menthol and camphor. If you’ve got sweet bay, you’ll still get some hefty initial notes, like camphor from the cineole, but as simmering time progresses, you’ll catch a sort of floral skunkiness – that’s the linalool’s influence. Piney, sagey notes come from the pinine, while the methyl eugenol might remind you of general earthy, savory notes. If you let that simmer go for 45 to 60 minutes, as you would for a soup or stew, and then taste your bay leaf tea, you’ll get hints of all these things – If you don’t, then what you’ve got is old, or old, crappy bay leaf – and that’s not at all uncommon.

Bay leaf’s contribution to your cooking is subtle – it’s a background stalwart, not a lead singer. What makes a sauce, soup, or stew great is the layering of flavors, and for that, a solid aromatic base is critical. Bay lends a raft of minor notes that, while perhaps not missed in and of themselves, certainly will be if they’re absent from the mix.

So what to do in your kitchen? Start by finding your bay leaf, opening the jar and giving it a big sniff. Do you get a nice, complex but subtle whiff of the stuff discussed herein? Do you remember where and when you bought those leaves? Does the container say anything about provenance? If the answer to those questions is, ‘no,’ then trash what you’ve got and get some fresh stuff. World Spice is a great go to for bay leaf – They carry both Turkish and California, and they’re always top notch quality. 

Bay does just fine as a dried herb, by the way. If you keep them in a clean, airtight glass jar, out of direct sunlight and wide swings of temperature, they’ll be good to go for 6 months, easy. If you want more from your bay, store them in your freezer and they’ll last for years.

Fresh Sweet Bay leaves
Fresh Sweet Bay leaves

You can use fresh bay leaves in cooking, but know that their potency is quite a bit higher than dried leaves, so adjust accordingly, and again, be sure you know what you’ve got – A freshly crushed leaf of fresh bay from our garden smells subtly savory and complex, just as described, whereas, at least to me, fresh California bay smells like a medicine cabinet – an overdose of the latter will ruin a meal really quickly.

Grow your own bay leaves

Finally, you can grow your own if you’re living in a USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 or thereabouts – We’re a 7+ here in the northwest corner of Washington State, and our little sweet bay plant is doing fine, even with a couple of hard frosts under its belt. Granted, it’s a small bush and not a tree – in its native turf, it can reach over fifteen meters in height. Here’s a very nice primer on doing so.

Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous

It’s a sure bet that, if you eat enough Mexican, Tex Mex, Caribbean, or South American food, you’ve enjoyed some form of carne asada. Certainly then, you’ve swooned over the rich and pungent blends of flavors presented by something that looks so simple, but tastes so complex. The answer lies in Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous.

The literal translation of the South American name for the dish is roasted meat, which tells us right away that the cooking side of things isn’t complex. All that magic comes from the mojo, and fortunately for us, it’s not only easy to make, it’s downright a gas.

Carne asada de UrbanMonique
Carne asada de UrbanMonique

Before we dive fully into Mojo, let’s spend a few looking at the history of carne asada – It’s as old as fire and cooking vessels, really. No one can lay claim to originating the dish, (although that hasn’t stopped many from trying). In addition to straight asada, there are popular variants that have much to do with how the meat is handled for service – Shredded or ground, as opposed to cooked whole and sliced, for instance. Shredded or pulled beef is found in American barbecue, ropa vieja in the Caribbean, and carne deshebrada in Mexico. One of the few variants with a fairly clear origin is carne asada fries, a sort of Tex-Mex swing at poutine, with carne asada and typical fixins replacing the gravy – Lolita’s in San Diego lays claim to that one, by the way. The versions most Americans are accustomed to stem from northern Mexican cuisines, although there are popular southern variants as well.

Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade
Mojo de UrbanMonique, a great all purpose marinade

Specific cuts of beef are commonly associated with carne asada, and they’re not exactly the rock stars. These include skirt, flank, and flap steak, the stuff the folks doing the boogie up on the hill certainly did not buy for themselves. That stuff was considered refuse, and the genesis of great meals formed around such marginal cuts is another example of the disenfranchised making due. Yet here in the 21st century, popularity has turned all that on its head – When we shopped for this post, skirt steak wasn’t available, and both flank and flap were commanding $10 a pound – TEN BUCKS A POUND!! Remember what happened with short ribs, or veal bones, a while back? Same gig – Popularity breeds stunning expense, straight out. The moral of the story is to be flexible – When we spied eye of the round cut thin as steaks for $5 a pound, it was game over, and ‘authenticity’ be hanged – It’ll all eat just fine – Boneless chuck, the bargain basement of beef cuts, makes perfectly wonderful carne asada.

Mojo de UrbanMonique - Leave it rustic, or blend, as you prefer

Now, on to that mojo. If you have a carniceria nearby, you can bet they offer carne asada, either in whole steaks, sliced, or chopped. You’ll likely find it either preperada, (marinated) or not, and if you get their marinade, what you’ll get can run the gamut from simple salt and oil, to quite complex mixes that rival a mole – The marinade is where the real poetic license lives with carne asada. What you create is up to you, (and we’ll provide plenty of options herein to get ya started.)

As common and as diverse as spaghetti sauce, there are dozens of popular, commercial mojo variants, let alone the tens of thousands rendered by home cooks everywhere. The Spanish word Mojo derives from the Portuguese, Molho, which simply means sauce – a clear indicator of its ubiquity. There is general agreement that mojo originated in the Canary Islands, the archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. Canarian cuisine is a fascinating amalgamation of the native islanders, (sadly, now largely extinct), Spanish, Portuguese, and African roots. Their cooking emphasizes freshness, simplicity, and powerful flavors, many of which derive from various mojos. Literally every Canarian family has at least two signature mojos, passed down from generation to generation. The signature island dish, Papas Arrugadas, (wrinkly potatoes), is demonstrative of all that. Whole potatoes boiled in salt water, and served with red and green mojo – And in an interesting twist of serendipity, the potato isn’t native to the Canaries – They came from South America, of course.

Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas
Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas

In its simplest form, mojo contains olive oil, chiles (pimienta in the Canaries), garlic, paprika, coriander (either fresh or seed), and cumin. As mentioned, there are two primary branches of Canarian mojo, red and green. The red, fueled by dried or fresh chiles and paprika, is most often paired with meat, while the green, made with green peppers, cilantro, or parsley, compliments fish courses. There are many other iterations, some using local cheese, (mojo con queso), garlic, almonds, and fresh herbs – Check out that almond Mojo recipe and you’ll see what I mean about rivaling moles. One could easily spent a happy year working through all these lovely things, and one of these days, I just might.

The flow of humanity in the 16th through 19th centuries, both forced and chosen, brought mojo to Europe, then South America, the Caribbean, and eventually, North America. Mojo not only thrived, it grew in leaps and bounds. Were I forced to define a generic, accurate version that we here in the Estados Unidos are familiar with, it would certainly include chiles, citrus, garlic, oil, and vinegar – A Mexican vinaigrette, in essence. Proportions are pretty broadly interpreted, with the main aim being making enough to generously coat and marinate your proteins.

Established Mexican, Caribbean, and South American variants also run the gamut from super simple to dizzyingly complex. What this means to the home cook is that, in all honestly, you can’t go wrong – Combine stuff you love and that plays well together, and you’re in like Flynn. I’m going to offer several variants, including fairly faithful renderings of styles you’ve probably tried and liked – As I always note, use these as a springboard for personal creativity, and know that you’ll likely never do the exact same thing twice – The real beauty of Mojo is as a last minute inspirational meal – You’ve got this, that, and the other thing in your stores, so what do you do with them? You do this.

The basics for a Mexican style mojo
The basics for a Mexican style mojo

NOTE ON WHAT TO MAKE: Tacos, burritos, chimis, or taco salads, with fresh pick de gallo and warm tortillas, are almost a must for your first meal if you’re marinating proteins, but keep in mind, this stuff has North African and Iberian roots, so get bold and go that direction if you feel so inspired. And you can always sauté the meat with something new, change the spicing, and make something totally different.

Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover
Carne Asada Hash, the perfect next morning leftover

NOTE ON MARINATING: Any marinade containing citrus, other acids like Vinegar, or other fruits like papaya, kiwi, pineapple, fig, or mango will break down the connective tissues in proteins as they marinate – There’s an enzyme called protease, (papain in papaya), that does the trick. That’s great for tenderizing tougher cuts, and it’s the secret as to why marginal stuff like skirt stake or flank steak can come out so tender. That said, be careful with the duration – There are a lot of recipes out there that advise marinating overnight, and that’s taking things too far – Going over 6 hours risks mushy meat, and nobody likes that texture. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as long as 4 or 5, and you’ll get great flavor infusion and a proper degree of tenderization.

Tacos Carne Asada
Tacos Carne Asada

NOTE ON GRILLING: Anything you marinate in Mojo will taste best grilled. And if you can, do so with wood or charcoal, although gas works just fine too. With the thinner cuts or proteins commonly used for carne asada, you’ve got to keep an eye on things – We’re talking a 2 minute punk rock song per side, as opposed to the common, classic rock 3-4 minutes a side measure. A lot of restaurants grill carne asada to well done, but you do not need to do that. Grill to medium rare, then allow a good 5 to 10 minute rest before you carve. If you use the more rustic cuts of beef, like skirt, flank, or flap steaks, carve 90° to the grain, at a 45° angle for each slice.

NOTE ON OIL: You’ll see I call for Avocado Oil on several Mojo recipes. I like it for it’s rich, buttery feel and neutral taste, as well as its exceptional smoke point. You can certainly use Extra Virgin Olive Oil in any of these recipes, but you really owe it to yourself to try avocado oil in the near future.

First, the classic Mojo roots.


Canarian Green Mojo

1 Bundle fresh Cilantro
3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 fresh Lime
3 cloves Garlic
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper

Rinse and dry all produce.

Remove long stems from Cilantro, discard and mince the leaves.

Peel and stem garlic, and mince.

Juice lime, and set aside.

If you’re using whole spices, add salt, pepper, and cumin to a spice grinder and pulse to an even consistency, (3 or 4 pulses should do it.)

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, potatoes, fish, or veggies.

 

Canarian Red Mojo

1 large Red Sweet Pepper
2-4 fresh hot chiles, (chef’s choice, they don’t have to be red – Jalapeño, Habanero, Serrano, and Cayenne all work)
3 cloves fresh Garlic
2-3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin

Rinse all produce and pat dry.

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

Fine dice Pepper and chiles.

Mince Garlic.

Process Cumin to a powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Serve with fresh crusty bread, chicken, pork, or beef.

 

UrbanMonique Signature Mojo – This is a great all purpose Mojo, with a couple of our signature twists.

Prep for making mojo is simple and quick
Prep for making mojo is simple and quick

2 small Limes
1 navel Orange
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
1/2 bunch fresh Cilantro
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons Live Cider Vinegar
Pinch of Sea Salt
3-4 twists fresh ground Pepper

Rinse and pat dry all produce.

Zest and juice the citrus, and reserve both.

Peel, stem, and mince the garlic.

Stem, de-seed, and devein the jalapeños, (leave the veins if you like more heat).

Remove long stems from Cilantro and mince the remainder.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. You can leave the sauce rustic, or process it with a stick blender for a smoother consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Also does great with tofu, veggies, or fish.
And finally, here are a few Mexican and South American variants.

 

Quick Cervesa Mojo – Great for folks that don’t like heat.

1 bottle Negra Modelo Beer
1 small lime
1 bunch Green Onions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
Pinch of Sea Salt
A few twists fresh ground Pepper

Open beer and pour into a bowl, allowing it to loose its fizz and flatten somewhat, (About 5-10 minutes)

Zest and juice lime, set both aside.

Peel, stem and mince garlic

Trim and peel green onions, then leave them whole, as trimmed.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and mix thoroughly. Leave the sauce rustic, do not process it.

Allow sauce to marry for 30 minutes prior to use. Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for an hour, then remove the steaks and the onions and grill both as desired. Goes great with the rest of the Negra Modelo six pack.

 

Taco Truck Mojo – There is no standard recipe, but this will put you in the running…

2 small Limes
2-4 hot Chiles of your choice
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon dark Soy Sauce
2 teaspoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Oregano
1/4 teaspoon Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon White Pepper

Rinse and pat dry produce.

Zest and juice Limes, set both aside.

Stem, seed, and devein chiles, (leave veins in if you want the heat). Fine dice chiles.

Peel and stem Garlic, then mince.

Process spices to a consistent rough powder if you’re using whole.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 5 hours. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

 

Garlic Papaya Mojo

1 fresh Papaya
1 small Green Bell Pepper
3-4 Green Onions
1 small fresh Lime
3 cloves Fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon live Cider Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Pinch of Sea Salt
A couple twists fresh ground Pepper

Peel, seed and rough chop papaya.

Zest and juice Limes.

Stem, seed and devein green pepper, then dice.

Peel, stem green onions, then cut into 1/4″ thick rounds.

Peel, stem, and mince garlic.

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl. Process with a stick blender to a smooth, even consistency.

Makes a fantastic marinade for chicken, pork, or beef. Marinate proteins for at least an hour, and as many as 3 hours – don’t exceed that too much, as the papain enzyme in papaya is formidable stuff. Grill proteins as desired, and baste with the marinate as you’re grilling.

A Story of Bitter Orange

This is a story of bitter orange, naranja agria. I came to love this little bundle of pucker power through the cuisine of the Yucatán peninsula. There, bitter orange is everywhere in the food, most famously in the signature dish, conchinita pibil, an intoxicating alchemy of naranja agria, chile heat, and low and slow pit cooking. While chiles and the Yucatán swing on pit barbecue are critical elements here, the one thing you absolutely can’t do pibil without is bitter orange.

Bitter Orange is seminal to a bunch more cuisines as well, from Cuban and other Caribbean islands, to Spanish, Moroccan, and Persian. This is not, for the most part, an eating or drinking orange and juice, although in Mexico, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see them sliced, salted, and slathered in chile paste as a snack. These oranges are very bitter indeed, and sour to boot – Think more lemon or lime than orange in that regard. Yet the orangey notes are most definitely there, and that’s what brings the magic.

Naranja Agria - The noble bitter orange

Also known as Seville orange, sour orange, marmalade orange, naranja acida, naranji, melangolo, and even soap orange, Citrus x aurantium originated in Southeast Asia and spread rapidly around the globe. Natives of the South Sea Islands believe it hit their shores prehistorically. It was the sole European orange for hundreds of years, and the first to arrive on this side of the pond. Now grown commercially virtually worldwide, bitter orange trees range from maybe 10 feet to over 30 feet. It’s generally a thorny evergreen tree, with leaves and flowers that smell absolutely delightful, and smallish fruit, 2 to 4 inches or so, and thick, wrinkly, oily skins, (that make great marmalade, of course.)

The noble bitter orange tree

As favored as these fruit are to so many cuisines, it’s natural that numerous varieties have been established. Seville is probably the most internationally recognizable, but there’s also the English bergamot (bouquet here in the states), the chinotto from the Mediterranean, the daidai from Japan and China, the Californian goleta, the South American Paraguay, and the Indian karna – There’s a bunch more than this, but you get the idea – They’re beloved all over the place.

There’s a nice range of notable food uses for sour orange, other than powering sauces and marinades – The peels make amazing marmalade, of course. Oil squeezed from the peels is a signature orange flavoring for curaçao liqueur, candy, soft drinks, ice cream, and a bunch of other stuff. Orange blossom honey is a treat wherever you can find it. Orange flower water finds its way into Middle Eastern and Persian food. In quite a few places, the juice is fermented into wine – I’ve never tried that, but I’d like to.

There are some very interesting non-food uses for naranja agria, tambien – when the fruit and leaves are crushed together, they’ll lather in water, and are sometimes used as soap. The perfume industry loves the oil and flowers. The juice has antiseptic and hemostatic properties. And finally, the wood is nice stuff – Dense and hard, it was used in Cuba for baseball bats.

So, now that you’re all excited to join the party, it’s time for some good news/bad news – First, the bad – in all likelihood, you won’t find decent sour orange juice anywhere near you – In fact, you probably won’t find it at all. Oh sure, there’s stuff out there called bitter or sour orange – Goya, Badia, and Lechonera are the brands you’re most likely to see – But the fact is, none of them are bitter orange juice. They contain, variously, orange juice concentrate, other juices like lime, lemon, or grapefruit, and at best, a little bit of sour orange oil, and a bunch of stabilizers and preservatives – the Lechonera brand, in fact, has lists propylene glycol as the seventh ingredient therein – In other words, at best these are shelf stable, pale shadows of the real thing.

So called ‘bitter orange’ marinade is anything but

The good news is, if you have a decent Latin grocery near you, there’s a 90%+ chance they sell fresh naranja agria, (and same goes for a Persian or Middle Eastern grocery, where they’ll probably call them Persian oranges). I get plump, juicy Valencias for around 50¢ a pop at La Gloria in Bellingham, WA. Do make sure you confirm they’re agria, (albeit they’ll probably have the little sticker on them telling what variety and place of origin they are). They’ll last like most citrus, good for three to four weeks refrigerated in a drawer designed for holding produce. Four or five is plenty to provide enough juice for most recipes. As with all citrus, look for firm, heavy fruit. More so than sweet oranges, bitters may have some green on their skins and still be ripe.

Now, what to do if you get a sudden hankerin’ to build something that calls for bitter orange when you ain’t got none? Then, it’s definitely time to fake it. As those commercial marinades indicate, the proper substitution is a combination of citrus juices, and maybe even some vinegar. The key here is the taste of orange forward in the mix, with the sourness of lemons, limes, and maybe vinegar – Again, naranja agria is really, really acidic – truly sour, with bitter notes from the oils. What you really need to do, assuming you’re into this, is try fresh squeezed sour orange juice, and then concoct what most closely resembles that to your taste – Everyone’s different, so your mix shall be your own.

When I posted a piece on pibil back in May of ‘17, I was using a mix of orange juice, lemon juice, cider vinegar, and tequila – And for the record, no, I don’t do that any more, and yes, I’ve revised that post. My current, (and consistently used), go to sour orange sub mix has morphed into equal portions of orange juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice, and a minor share of pineapple vinegar, (the latter comes from Rancho Gordo and is worth its weight in gold). I build it in just shy of one cup batches, like so,

 

Urban’s Faux Sour Orange

All juices fresh squeezed

1/4 Cup Orange Juice

1/4 Cup Grapefruit Juice

1/4 Cup Lime Juice 

2 Tablespoons Pineapple Vinegar (Good Cider vinegar is just fine)

Again, you’ll have to experiment and tweak things to your liking. Finally, here’s a Cuban inspired chicken dish that’ll take full advantage of naranja agria you can give a try to.

Urban’s Pollo Cubano

Urban’s Pollo al Cubano 

1 whole chicken, around 3 pounds

1 Cup fresh Bitter Orange Juice (or Sub)

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1-3 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles, (Assuming you can’t get fresh Cubanelles – If you can, do)

1 small Sweet Onion

1 Red Bell Pepper

4-6 fat cloves Garlic

1 Tablespoon Mexican Oregano

2 Bay Leaves 

Salt and fresh ground Pepper

Butterfly the chicken, (if you don’t know this trick, check it out here)

Skin and trim onion and garlic. 

Fine dice onion, and mince the garlic.

Stem and seed chiles, then fine dice.

Stem, seed, and fine dice the bell pepper.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and allow to heat through. 

Add chiles, peppers, and onion. Sauté until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about another 1-2 minutes.

Remove veggie blend from heat and allow to cool to room temp.

Zest and juice whatever citrus you’re using.

In a non-reactive bowl, combine juice, zest, remaining oil, the cooled sofrito, oregano, bay leaves, a pinch of salt, and a few twists of ground pepper. Whisk to fully incorporate.

Place the chicken in a baking dish as close to the size of the butterflied bird as you’ve got.

Pour the marinade on the chicken, and then rub it in by hand, making sure all exposed surfaces get coated, including underneath.

Allow the bird to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 – Any more than that can lead to a mushy chicken.

Bake the bird on a middle rack in a 350° F oven, or grill it if you prefer – 

I like to bake, because more of the marinade stays with the chicken.

Serve with rice, black beans, and cold beer.

Sauce Grenobloise is a delight!

There’s an old assumption that French sauces are all heavy handed and overbearing, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are a bunch of variants, many of them light and delightfully complimentary. One of my absolute favorites comes from Grenoble, the city tucked up into the edge of the French Alps. Sauce Grenobloise is a delight, and it’s great for so much more than fish.

Gratin dauphinois, Grenoble’s signature dish

Grenoble is perhaps most food famous for gratin dauphinois, that decadent potato dish, and frankly, that makes sense – The Rhône-Alpes region of France favors such hearty delights, without a doubt. It’s interesting to me that sauce grenobloise hails therefrom. Yes, it’s a butter sauce, but it’s simple and light-handed, complimenting a dish while staying in the background, as a good sauce should, oui? Ah bon – and it’s pronounced, grehnoh-blewahs-ah, by the way.

Grenobloise, (a play on sauce Meunière), is comprised of butter, lemon, parsley, capers, and some croutons. Almost always paired with fish, it imparts a subtle richness and a truly delightful tang – But its charms are wasted if limited to only piscine pairings – Grenobloise will compliment a wide range of foods and dishes, and is a perfect vehicle for raising leftovers to new heights.

First off, some great target fish pairings, oui? Personally, I favor firm fleshed white fish, like halibut, tuna, and cod, but salmon, flounder, sole, rockfish, bass, trout, catfish and panfish will also shine. Lobster, crab, clams, and mussels are also great pairings.

We eat very, very little fish because of the delicate condition of our oceans and fisheries, so we’re more likely to pair grenobloise with chicken, pork, or lamb, and it’s sublime on freshly scrambled eggs. Let us not forget the non-animal based proteins – fresh, firm tofu and beans are great. There’s also some wonderful pulse, grain, and cereal options, like lentils, beans, rice, and wild rice. And grenobloise is a delight with veggies like asparagus, spuds, artichokes, brussels sprouts, and lettuce salads.

potatoes with garlic, celery leaf, and Korean chile flake

Making grenobloise couldn’t be easier, albeit there are plenty of opportunities for tweaking the recipe. Ratios must be a bit fluid, as the power of parsley, lemons, and capers will vary. In the purest incarnation, the sauce is made solo, on the stove top, and added to whatever you wish. If on the other hand, you’re sautéing or pan frying something, making the sauce in that same pan when your other stuff is done isn’t a bad idea at all – It’ll lend some subtly married flavors to the finished dish.

Pan seared chicken, finished in the oven

Obviously, freshness and quality matter here. The better your ingredients, the better the sauce. It’s hard for most of us to get fresh butter, so this might be a great time for you take a swing at making your own – The results will reward you richly. Likewise, fresh green parsley from your garden is best – Most French recipes call for flatleaf, but if curly is what you’ve got and/or prefer, by all means use that. 

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered what ‘nonpareil,’ or sometimes ‘Non Pareil’ on a jar of capers means, it means they’re way good. After they’re picked, capers are sorted by size, then brined or dried or salted. The smallest are the priciest, one that ‘has no equal,’ as the French put it – They’re the best for taste and texture, and that’s what you want.

 

Sauce Grenobloise

1/4 Cup fresh unsalted Butter

1 small fresh Lemon

2 Tablespoons Nonpareil Capers

2 Tablespoons fresh Parsley

1/2 Cup Croutons

If you don’t have croutons handy – 

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

Grab a nice, thick slice of densely crumbed bread, (whatever you like – Let’s not get fussy…)

Cut bread into roughly 1/2” squares.

Spread croutons on a baking sheet and bake until light golden and crunchy, about 4-7 minutes.

Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

For the Sauce – 

Zest the lemon and cut it in half. Reserve half for the juice, and carefully slice out the flesh from the other half, removing pith and fibrous stuff. Dice the flesh.

Mince the parsley.

Drain the capers.

Mise en place for sauce grenobloise

In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the butter and melt. Again, if you sautéed or pan fried something, by all means use that pan to make the sauce in.

Melting the butter for sauce grenobloise

Whisk the butter steadily, and take care that it doesn’t burn. Cook until the butter is golden brown, about 3-5 minutes.

The butter will likely foam when you add lemon

Add the lemon zest, juice and flesh, capers, and parsley. Whisk to incorporate and allow all that to heat through, about 1-2 minutes. NOTE: The butter may foam up when the citrus juice hits it, so be careful.

Sauce Grenobloise

Remove sauce from heat.

Arrange croutons on whatever it is you’re saucing and apply sauce liberally.

Sauce Grenobloise deployed

Enjoy – and you’ll need a piece or two of fresh, crusty bread to sop up every last drop with. 

A crisp, cold Pilsner, or Provençal rose wouldn’t hurt either.

Cilantro Pesto III

Some of you know that I make guitars. Among luthiers, there are factions referred to as right and left brainers. The left brainers tend toward strict mathematical method, while right brainers work more organically from intuition. Truth is, few builders are purely one or the other. The same thing can be said of chefs. In both pursuits, I tend toward right brain creativity, informed by formal training, experience, and the hard and fast science behind cooking. Add to that the fact that I really don’t care for being told what to do without some information behind the direction, and you’ve pretty much got the heart of what drives UrbanMonique.

When a recipe shows up here, trust that it’s been researched and made more than once before you see it, the same thing that’s done in professional kitchens around the world. Even if a dish is a daily special, offered only once, there will be a process of discussion and some refinement done prior to it being chalked onto the board. Fact is, the daily specials are often driven by product that needs to be used right now. Chefs will discuss what to do, maybe coming up with something genuinely new, but more often arriving at that new special after someone says, “Remember that Provençal fish thing we did? We could do a take on that here..”

I’m blessed with a very talented, honest, and passionate muse in the kitchen; she goes by the name of Monica. Not a day goes by that we don’t discuss what we did last and how we might improve it, what we’re doing next, how we’ll do it, what we expect to attain. For my mind, that process is critical to success. If you love to cook, and you don’t practice some like form, start. If you don’t have a human partner, then write down what you do, and go from there. Even better, email or tweet me, and we’ll tweak it together. Passion and love of cooking is at the core of creativity and exploration. We were discussing our next opus last night, when I blurted out “God, I love food!” M laughed, nodded and said, “That’s funny coming from you, but yeah!”

Now about that cilantro. I love the stuff, so it’s always in our kitchen, fresh and/or dried. Recently, plans that included a lot of cilantro fell through, so we had too much on hand. This herb has a short shelf life, so something needed to be done right away to preserve rather than waste. We decided on pesto, and that we’d use whatever else was on hand, building a variant we’d not done before. This is what we came up with, and it’s stellar, frankly. The rich, buttery flavor of the avocado oil and feta balances perfectly with the tang of the lemon and herbaceous base of cilantro. Here’s what we did.

P.S. Yes, I know some of you don’t like cilantro. Tough luck, that… We are working on a piece that speaks to the science behind your malady, so stay tuned.

 photo image-17.jpg

1 well packed Cup Cilantro
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil
1/4 Cup Feta Cheese
Juice & Zest of 1/2 fresh Lemon
2 small cloves fresh Garlic
Salt and a few twists of ground Pepper

Zest and juice lemon.

Process everything but the oil, salt, and pepper in a food processor or blender until thoroughly incorporated.

With the processor or blender running, (Low speed if you’ve got one), add the oil in a slow, steady stream.

Stop when you hit the consistency you like.

Taste and season to taste with salt and pepper, and adjust lemon if needed.

Freeze leftovers as needed. Pesto works great in an ice cube tray, frozen. Just pop out a cube when you need one.

Here are Cilantro Pesto I and Cilantro Pesto II if you’ve not tried them already.

 

A Couple of Rancho Gordo Tweaked Recipes

I wrote about RG beans not long ago, and frankly, they’re still on my mind, as is their stunningly good Pineapple Vinegar. That combo had me digging through old favorite summer recipes and tweaking them for these newfound delights. So here, for your reading and eating pleasure, are a revamped teriyaki marinade, and an incredible three bean salad. Enjoy!

Summer is grilling season, and it wouldn’t be right without teriyaki in the mix. That pineapple vinegar inspired me to alter my go to marinade thusly.

Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade
Rancho Gordo Pineapple Vinegar powered teriyaki marinade

RG Pineapple Vinegar Teriyaki Marinade

1/2 Cup Chicken Stock, (Veggie stock or water are both fine too)

1/4 Cup Tamari

1/4 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 Tablespoons Rock Sugar (Dark Brown Sugar is fine too)

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot

2 Cloves fresh Garlic

1” fresh Ginger Root

Trim, peel, and mince garlic and ginger.

In a sauce pan over medium heat, combine tamari, vinegar, agave, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger.

Whisk to incorporate – When sauce begins to scale, reduce heat to low.

Combine arrowroot and stock, which to incorporate thoroughly.

Add stock mixture to sauce and whisk thoroughly. Allow sauce to heat through, whisking steadily, until it reaches the thickness you like, about 2-4 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl, allow to cool to room temperature before use – You can set up an ice bath in a second bowl to hasten that process if it’s hot where you are, like it was today where we is…

marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!
marinated skewers, full of summer goodness!

Separate some to use as a dipping sauce if desired.

That same stuff, along with dang near any or all RG beans, inspired this twist on Three Bean Salad.

Classic Three Bean Salad
Classic Three Bean Salad

Three bean salad is a delight in the dog days of summer – Cool, tangy, and hearty to boot. While I truly love the traditional base of pinto, wax, and green beans, you can and should do whatever mix you like – This is the perfect time of year to play with whatever is fresh at hand. The beauty of that freedom is that the dish really does change in very fundamental ways when you vary the bean trio, even with the same dressing. What I show below is my personal fave, but there too, you can and should go with what you’ve got fresh in the garden whenever possible. The mainstays to me are the rhythm section of that dressing – Rancho Gordo’s incredible Pineapple Vinegar, and fresh avocado oil – It creates a beautiful base to go just about anywhere from – I just got this stuff, and am absolutely enamored with it, so I re-did my go recipe, (which used live cider vinegar), to reflect same.

Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.
Bean salad should have whatever you love in it, period.

Speaking of Rancho Gordo, it’s there that a raft of stunningly delicious bean options await – Their heirloom stuff is so good, you can easily hop down the rabbit hole trying out different combinations. Their garbanzos, limas, and yellow woman beans make an incredible trio, with a delightful depth and breadth of flavors and textures, and again – That’s just one of many, many options. The quality of these beans is so far above anything else, you truly must try them.

Yet another combo...
Yet another combo…

Three bean salad definitely likes a little time for things to marry, so it’s a great dish to make ahead. And of course, if you have other veggies you love, that are ready to rock, add those too – You sure don’t need my permission!

Urban’s Go To Three Bean Salad

1 Cup Rancho Gordo Rio Zape Beans

1 Cup Fresh Green Beans

1 Cup Fresh Wax Beans

1 Cup Sweet Onion

1 stalk fresh Celery, with leaves

Sea Salt and fresh ground Grains of Paradise, to taste

For the Dressing

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/3 Cup Pineapple Vinegar

2 Tablespoons fresh Shallot, minced

1-2 cloves fresh Garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon fresh Thyme

1 teaspoon fresh Dill

1/4 teaspoon Chile flake

Rio Zape Beans should be cooked to al dente.

Blanch green and wax beans in boiling water until al dente, about 2-3 minutes – Have a bowl of ice water ready beside the stove, and plunge the beans into that as soon as they’re right.

Rinse and stem onion and celery, and then medium chop, (chiffonade celery leaf).

Rinse, stem and mince garlic, thyme, and dill.

In a large, non-reactive bowl, combine all beans, onion, and celery. Season with a three finger pinch of sea salt and a half dozen twists of grains of paradise – Gently toss to thoroughly incorporate.

In a second non-reactive bowl, combine all dressing ingredients and whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Allow dressing to marry for 15 minutes, then dress salad with a steady drizzle – You may or may not want to use all of it, so stop when you’re happy with the ratio.

Allow salad to marinate, chilled, for at least 2 hours prior to serving.

Will do fine refrigerated for a couple days, if it lasts that long…

Spring Rolls – Delicious and Easy

Nobody truly knows the origin of the spring roll. While we here in the U. S. see them as Asian food, they are, In fact, a worldwide treat, and not all those threads lead to the Far East. One thing’s for certain, though – Spring rolls are delicious, simple to make, and a fantastic way to clean out the fridge and garden, especially during the heady growing months of summer.

Spring Rolls a la Urban
Spring Rolls a la Urban

Spring rolls are usually dim sum, an appetizer, although as anyone knows who’s tucked into a freshly made batch, they can and should be a meal whenever the mood strikes. If we had to posit on a point of origin, China would probably get the nod. Chūn Juǎn, 春卷, means spring or egg roll, and they go back a spell in Chinese history – The popular version of things traces them back to the Jin Dynasty, which ruled from the mid third century to the early fifth. It is said that to celebrate the first harvests of spring, thin cakes would be filled with fresh vegetables and served with various sauces. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, (early 600s through early 900s), spring rolls got a bit hotter, as the advent of imported foods like chiles and garlic made their way into the Chinese culinary lexicon. By the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the thin cakes had gotten notably thinner, much more like wonton, egg roll, and spring roll wrappers are today.

Spring rolls may be fried, deep fried, steamed, or cold, depending on the fillings, region, and history they reflect. In general, the fried and steamed versions are smaller – bite or a coupla bite sized things. The fresh versions, served cold and wrapped in rice paper – those translucent, ethereal wrappers that let the beauty of fresh ingredients shine – And that’s what we’ll be featuring here today – It’s hot, in fact, record hot here in the Great Northwet, with a lot of smoke in the air from fires up in British Columbia – A perfect time for a cool, savory treat. In China, there is still a Cold Food Festival Day, so we’ll honor that.

There is great diversity on spring rolls around China – they reflect the regions they’re known for – Szechuan and Hunan versions are fiery, with sauces to match. Shandong, in the northeast, favors seafood. Fujian is river fish, crawfish, and fowl. Jiangsu might feature duck or pork, with richer sauces leaning toward Sweet and sour. And Cantonese boasts sauces and spice blends of dizzying complexity, and more beef than anywhere else in that big country.

Continue through Asia, and it’s a sure bet that every country has a spring roll, and will claim theirs as first and best, (and who knows, they well could be right). In Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, spring rolls are generically called popiah. They’re usually fresh, and almost always wrapped in rice paper. Peanut sauce becomes the most popular dip, and is absolutely delicious in several iterations – We’ll also be making that today. It’s in Vietnam that you find gỏi cuốn, the summer roll – These usually feature pork, along with fresh veggies, some of which may, (and aughta be), lightly pickled for a lovely interplay of tastes.

As Chinese and other Asian expats spread out, they brought their cuisine with them, of course – Once reestablished, they had to make some adjustments for local ingredients, as well as for the things they used at home and couldn’t find in their new environs. Thus, innovation is born – From Korea to the Philippines, all across Europe, into South America and the Caribbean, there are variations on the spring roll theme, many found as inspired street food.

Design and construction couldn’t be easier. Spring rolls lend themselves to last minute inspiration really well, and appropriate dipping sauces can be whipped up in short order, assuming you’ve got a decent pantry, (and you should – Hoisin sauce, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and various wrappers are now fairly ubiquitous at even small town grocery stores, and if not, readily on line.)

Have your mis ready when it's time to roll
Have your mis ready when it’s time to roll

When you’re picking ingredients, consider color and texture as much as taste – When you’re working with the ethereal rice paper wrapper as your canvas, everything is visible, and so those Asian cooking concepts of season, color, and flavor balances make perfect sense. Crunch might come from lettuce, cabbage, onion, carrot, water chestnut, daikon or salad radishes, fennel root, celeriac, celery, or cucumber, just to name a few. Pork, chicken, shellfish, or tofu adds a nice protein base, as well as a sweet/savory balance. Fresh mint, cilantro, watercress, or arugula can add an herbal note.

For cold, rice wrapped spring rolls like we’ll build, a quick pickle is a must do, for my my mind – pick two or three things that take nicely to pickling and give them 30 minutes or so in a nice bath – Onion, carrot, and radishes are great, and reward with a crisp tang that helps cut though heavier proteins and dipping sauces.

A quick pickle is a must
A quick pickle is a must

For lettuces, cabbages, and sprouts, light seasoning helps wake up fresh flavors. Since you’ve already got a couple vinegar notes, just a very light drizzle of avocado or sesame oil, salt, and pepper will do the trick. While all this might seem a bit busy, it really does make the difference between making something that tastes like you paid for it and a so-so meal – And I’ll guarantee the results will be well worth it.

Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff
Salt, pepper, and a splash of oil to season your crunchy stuff

When prepping for spring rolls, keep in mind that marrying flavors is the goal. Spend a little time making nice, uniform cuts of all your ingredients, and keep things small – fine dice, julienne, or matchstick cuts are best for most firm veggies, and a chiffonade for the leafy stuff.

Dice, or julien - Make everything fit in that spring roll
Dice, or julien – Make everything fit in that spring roll

Small bowls are perfect for arranging your mis en place. Have everything ready to go when you feel like it’s time to stuff some wrappers. Make your dipping sauces and pickles first, to allow flavors to marry, and your quick pickle to work its magic.

Wrappers do offer some variety, but again, if you’re going to do a cold presentation, rice paper is what you want. They’re cheap, don’t need to be refrigerated, and pretty easy to work with once you know the rules.
1. Set up a bowl of warm water big enough to immerse your rice wrappers in.
2. Set up a non-stick cutting board or two for rolling/stuffing
3. Dip a wrapper into the water for 5 seconds.
4. Pull the wrapper out of the water and let excess water drip off.
5. Lay the wrapper flat and let it sit for about 45 seconds, while it absorbs water and gets fully pliable.
6. Stuff away.

Rolls can certainly be made ahead, but when you’re blending fresh flavors and ingredients, eating them ASAP after construction pays off big time.

Now, about those dipping sauces. You can use dang near anything, and if in a pinch, good soy sauce, straight hoisin, or that awesome Yakitori sauce we made last week would all do just fine. But really, if you’re building, you should build some fresh sauce – For the most part, they’re easy and quick to make, and will reward with a much more expressive presence than anything store bought. Here are two different peanut sauce variants, one with fresh whole peanuts and one with peanut butter, as well as a simple ginger-soy version. The whole peanut version is amazing, but not as smooth as the peanut butter version, fyi.

The fresh peanut version
The fresh peanut version

Urban’s Fresh Peanut Sauce

1 Cup fresh roasted Peanuts
1/3 Cup Chicken Stock
1/3 Cup Coconut Milk
2 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Honey
2 teaspoons Tamari
2 teaspoons Fish Sauce
1 teaspoon Tamarind Paste (1 Tablespoon Lime Juice is an OK sub)
1-2 teaspoons Sriracha

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

If your peanuts are raw, roast in a heavy skillet, 350° F oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Throw everything into a food processor or blender and process until you’ve got a smooth sauce – if things are a bit too thick, add a drizzle more chicken stock until you hit desired consistency.

Taste and adjust as needed, (fish sauce, sriracha, honey).

Allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes so flavors can marry.

Will last for a good week refrigerated in an airtight container.

The smooth version of peanut sauce
The smooth version of peanut sauce

Peanut Sauce II

1 Can Coconut Milk (12 to 14 ounces, unsweetened)
1/2 Cup Chicken Stock
3/4 Cup creamy Peanut Butter (Use something natural, with a lot of oil – No cheap stuff here.)
1/4 Cup Thai Red Curry Paste
1/4 Cup Honey
2 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Sea Salt

Add all ingredients to a heavy sauce pan over medium heat, and whisk to incorporate.

When the sauce begins to simmer, reduce heat to just maintain that and cook for 3-5 minutes, whisking constantly.

Remove sauce from heat and transfer to a non-reactive bowl.

Allow sauce to cool and flavors to marry for 30 minutes prior to serving

Will last a week or more refrigerated in an airtight container.

 

Urban’s Ginger Soy Dipping Sauce

1/2 Cup Tamari
1/4 Cup Rice Vinegar
1″ piece of fresh Ginger Root
1 Green Onion
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
1 teaspoon Agave Nectar
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil

Peel, trim, and mince garlic and ginger.

Peel, trim, and cut into roughly 1/4″ rings.

Combine all ingredients ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and whisk to incorporate.

Allow flavors to marry for 15-20 minutes prior to serving.

Will last a couple of weeks refrigerated in an airtight container.

Yakitori, Japan’s Answer to the Kebab

If it seems as if you’re seeing a trend in my posts lately, you are. I just finished rereading Mark Kurlansky’s, Salt – A World History, and find myself inspired. It’s a great read, and you should give it a spin. Like John McPhee, Kurlansky has the ability to write volumes on a seemingly mundane topic and come out with a page turner. When I first read it years ago, I wasn’t writing about food as much as I do now, so this go ’round lead to a fascinating bout of exploration. Recent posts on salt potatoes, ketchup, and fish sauce were all inspired therefrom, and this week, I bring you Yakitori, Japan’s answer to the kabab.

Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it's gotta be great, right?
Hey, if they serve it at the ballpark, it’s gotta be great, right?

Casual observers are often surprised by how much meat is involved in Japanese cooking. Certainly Japan did have a rather protracted period of fundamental vegetarianism. The broad adoption of Chinese Buddhism in the 7th century sealed the deal – in the late 670s, the Emporer Tenmu proclaimed a prohibition on eating animal flesh, fowl, fish, and shellfish, and Shojin Ryori was born – Japanese vegetarian cuisine as cultural touchstone. Not all of that motivation was spiritual, though – The powers that be realized that eating draft animals seriously impaired the country’s ability to adequately feed its people. Nonetheless, the edict more or less persisted for some 1200 years. Clearly, the increasing presence of westerners on Japanese shores had a bearing on the resurgence of meat eating, a process that began with Portuguese traders in the middle of the 16th century, and continues to this day.

While eating food cooked on a stick undoubtedly goes back to the harnessing of fire, the Japanese have a pretty clear recollection of when yakitori first appeared. It was in the Edo period, around the middle 1600s, and initially it was game birds roasted on sticks – quail, pheasant, pigeons and the like. As European influence increased, chickens became more common, eventually making it on to a stick as well. Beef and pork followed over time. As is oft the case, how good your yakitori was back when depended on your income and social status – While the rich ate the best stuff, the poor folks were grilling offal, and all the other little weird bits the beautiful people didn’t want. In any event, those sweet, smoky flavors, basted in soy, sake, and spices, was and remains hugely popular, and the regional variety is as rich as the country that spawned it.

Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling
Season lightly with salt and pepper before grilling

Just covering the chicken versions of yakitori can be a bit dizzying – Our preference is for the ever popular chicken thigh version, called momo, along with negima- chicken and spring onion, and kawa – Chicken skin, (seriously, it’s amazing done up with bacon, spring onion, and water chestnuts). There’re many more, from chicken and leeks (hasami), to breast meat (sasami), chicken meatball (tsukune) and chicken wings (tebasaki). Then there’s all those former peasant versions, which are still quite popular – Kawa is skin, bonjiri is tail, shiro is guts, nankotsu is cartilage, hāto is heart, rebā is liver, and sunagimo is gizzards – nummy.

Then there’s that seasoning and/or sauce – Yakitori is typically done salty, or salty-sweet. The salty version is, more often than not, just sprinkled with sea salt and grilled, end of story. The salty-sweet, called tare, is a whole ‘nuther ballgame. In Japan, you can bet that dang near every yakitori stand and joint has their own version, and they’re all top secret. Fortunately, we can suss out the basics – soy sauce, mirin, dry sake, and some form of sweetener are added to freshly made bone stock, and that more than gets the job done. Of course there are variants – Everything from spring onion and garlic, to ginger, hot chiles, pepper, and even wasabi might be found in there. That’s good news for us, because making a very nice basic sauce is easy, and more to the point, poetic license is fully authorized.

Protein or veggies, anything you've got will make fine Yakitori
Protein or veggies, anything you’ve got will make fine Yakitori

The real beauty of yakitori is that it makes a great last minute dinner, or a perfect vehicle for fridge cleaning – You can and should use whatever you like, in whatever combinations please you. Sure, a lot of ‘real’ yakitori is either just one thing, or maybe a couple skewered together, but there’s nothing at all wrong with doing them up like little shish kebab. The bottom line is that the cooking method and saucing has as much or more to do with the overall taste as the things you decide to grill, so go wild. By that same rule, if you’re pressed for time, there’s nothing wrong at all with using straight soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or bottle yakitori sauce, (and the former is now quite easily found in the Asian food section of your local market.

Yakitori does not require any marinating prior to cooking. You need to merely slice stuff up into bite sized pieces and shove them onto sticks. Couldn’t be easier. One note on cutting stuff – the preferred method is known as sogigiri, AKA cutting on a roughly 30° angle with the food lying flat in a cutting board. Cut toward yourself, starting at the upper left of your intended slice and working down and across. What that does is maximize surface area on relatively small chunks of food, giving more space to add sauce and heats from the grill to.

The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area
The Sogigiri cut maximizes surface area

Speaking of grilling, while traditional yakitori is done on a brazier or charcoal grill, the desired technique employs no smoke and moderate heat, which means you folks who only have a gas grill, or a broiler in your oven, are gonna be just fine.

When skewering your goodies, do take the time to make sure every piece is snuggled right up tight against the next one – With small, relatively thin cuts of flesh and veggies, dried out food is a real possibility – Keeping them tight helps retain the baste better, and keeps things moist and juicy as well. Give whatever your skewering a light dusting of good salt and fresh ground pepper after you’ve got them done up. If you’re wanting to go all out, take a trip to the market and find fresh, seasonal veggies, meats, and poultry. Like the Vietnamese, Japanese cooks pay special attention to color and season – Spring is green, summer dark green, fall is orange and red, winter is white. Have some fun with it, and let your plates reflect your findings.

Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy
Place skewers close together to help keep things moist and juicy

Brush on your basting sauce after you’ve placed the skewers on the grill. With chicken, pork, or beef, you’re going to want in the neighborhood of 5 minutes or so cooking per side, with another baste application at the turn. Again, don’t run your grill flat out – You want to cook these on medium-low heat, allowing time for things to cook through and absorb all the goodness from your baste. If you’re using a charcoal grill, set up a two zone configuration, start the skewers on the cooler side, and finish with a couple quick flips on the hot side. If you’re using wooden skewers, soak them for about half an hour prior to loading them up. Lightly oil your grill surface prior to placing skewers, to help keep them from sticking – Use a neutral vegetable oil so you don’t adulterate your taste profiles.

House made Yakitori Sauce - Black gold.
House made Yakitori Sauce – Black gold.

That sauce, that amazing sauce. We’ll start here, because this stuff really is magical. I made the batch done for this post on the same day I slow cooked a big ol’ pork roast. In the last week, that sauce went on the pork twice, into fried rice, was added to a teriyaki joint style salad dressing, and even made its way into tacos – Its that good, and that versatile. Many, many folks say that, over in Japan, cooks add to a big pot of their signature sauce every day, so that it effectively never runs out. We won’t likely go that far at home, but my oh my, do you want this in your fridge at all times. While the real deal is made with the bones from the chicken thighs you’re about to skewer, you can sub chicken stock for the water and bones if you’re in a hurry – But DO make the bone stock version just once, and you’ll be hooked – It’s super easy, incredibly delicious, and very rewarding for home cooks.

House made Yakitori
House made Yakitori

You can certainly use one sauce for all things, and well might – But we’re including some variants, to give you some ideas for future explorations.

 

Urban’s Go To Yakitori Sauce
(Makes enough for several meals, or one hell of a party)

Bones from 4 fresh Chicken Thighs or Legs
1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1/2 Cup Dry Sake
1/2 Cup Water (Chicken Stock, if not using bones)
6 Scallions
3 cloves fresh Garlic
1/2″ chunk fresh Ginger
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan Pepper (or anything hotter if you prefer)

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Trim scallions and cut into roughly 1/2″ rings.

Dice ginger, (you don’t need to peel it)

On a baking pan lined with foil, under a high broiler, scatter bones and broil for about 10 minutes, turning with tongs so they brown evenly.

Transfer roasted bones to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat.

Add all additional ingredients, stir well to incorporate, and heat through until a low boil is achieved.

Reduce heat to just maintain a steady simmer and cook until the volume of the sauce is reduced by 50% – You’ll note when you get there that the sauce coats a spoon with an even, viscous layer. The cook should take around 45 minutes to an hour, but keep an eye on things and give it an occasional stir.

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

Allow to cool to room temperature, then transfer to a clean glass jar. Will store refrigerated for 2 to 3 weeks.

Urban’s Pork Yakitori Sauce

1 Cup Mirin
1 Cup Tamari
1 Cup Dry Sake
2 Tablespoons Hot Chile Paste (Gochujang, wangzhihe, harissa, or Sriracha will do just fine)
2 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Honey
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
3 cloves fresh Garlic

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

In a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, add all ingredients and stir to incorporate.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer.

Allow sauce to reduce by 50%, remove from heat, run through a single mesh strainer, cool to room temp.

Store refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

 

Urban’s Beef Yakitori Sauce
This is quite close to a typical sauce used for that deep fried wonder, Kushiage.

1/2 Cup Ketchup
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tablespoons Tamari
1 Tablespoon Mirin
1 Tablespoon Honey
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Mix all ingredients together and allow at least 30 minutes for the flavors to marry before brushing onto your skewers.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for storage.

 

Just in case you’re like us, and want a little something green with your skewers, here’s my swing on that great savory salad dressing you get from your local teriyaki joint.

 

Urban’s Teriyaki Joint Salad Dressing

1 Cup Mayonnaise
1/3 Cup Rice Vinegar
4 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
4 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
2 Tablespoons Yakitori Sauce
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Whisk all together in a non-reactive bowl, and allow flavors to marry for at least 30 minutes prior to use.

Store refrigerated for up to a week in an airtight, non-reactive container.

So You Think You Know Ketchup?

So, you think you know ketchup, huh? Recently, we posted on Salsa, as well as the most popular derivative thereof, Sriracha, and noted therein that both those condiments actually outsell ketchup in the U.S., which might surprise some of y’all. Yet the ubiquity of American fast food concepts has done much to spread the red stuff worldwide, which then begs the question – How popular is ketchup worldwide? The answer is very.

Ketchup, it's everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds
Ketchup, it’s everywhere, and growing by leaps and bounds

Global market research by respected industry watchers pegged ketchup as a $4.15 billion dollar commodity in 2015. With an expected annual growth rate of 3.8%, sales of ketchup worldwide are expected to hit $5.6 billion by 2022 – Billion with a B – That’s a lotta ketchup, gang. And what are the biggest trends in that friggin’ huge market? So called ‘exotic ingredient’ ketchups, and organic offerings. Interesting, no? The Big Four primary derivatives of the ketchup trade are as follows – Tomato, mushroom, fruit and nut, and ‘other.’ The latter leaves quite a bit to the imagination. Ironically, these popular trends lead us in a perhaps unexpected direction – Backwards, to the origin of the stuff.

It should come as no surprise that tomato ketchup, far and away the most popular version today, was not the first one to be so named. In England of the 1700s, sauces called catsup, ketchup, or katchup were anchovy based things, seasoned with vinegar, shallot, ginger, clove, nutmeg, lemon, pepper, and wine. The results were more like Worcestershire sauce than the stuff we know today as ketchup. The name for these lovely things comes from, of all places, Indonesia, where kecap, (pronounced ketchup), means a dark, thick, soy based sauce, (And remains immensely popular there to this day). The leap from the East back to England occurred because that’s where the Brits got a lot of those exotic spices they threw in with them salty little fish. And not surprisingly, derivations of the stuff came out featuring, you guessed it, mushrooms, fruit, and nuts.

Tomato ketchup, on the other hand, took a while longer to circulate, as the ‘love apple’ was a native to Central and South America, and as such didn’t appear in Europe until (probably) the Spaniards brought them back over the big pond in the 16th century. Tomatoes were readily embraced by most countries around the Mediterranean, which it took somewhere around 150 years or so to spread and become accepted. That acceptance was not so forthcoming from the Northern Europeans, including the British, (who initially though the fruit to be poisonous). The first acknowledged tomato ketchup recipe came from the American colonies, during the revolutionary war, and the first published version came out while Lewis and Clark were traipsing west, in 1804, by physician/horticulturist James Mease. His version salted sliced tomatoes and let them sit for a day, then added mace, allspice, shallot, and brandy, and cooked it all down. Meade claimed the French loved the stuff, which is patently bullshit – More likely, given the spicing he employed, he’d been handed something from the Caribbean, because it sounds a lot like Sauce Creole. In any event, the stuff caught on in a big way, and the rest is history.

Ketchup, especially the tomato variety, came about as one way to preserve things through the cold months, and frankly, that’s why I’m writing about it here and now. A whole bunch of us have gardens, and what is almost guaranteed to be one of those crops you sew and then some time later are offering to any friend, neighbor, or willing perfect stranger you can find, due to relative overabundance? Yep, love apples. As such, it’s a great time to visit some recipes for the stuff. Sure, there are ‘natural’ and organic versions out there in the stores, as well as those exotics styles – But frankly, while the natural stuff is far better for you than the old standard, they’re not exactly using fresh, home grown tomatoes that could and should be several varieties – And that means you can make better at home. And as for the exotics, take a look at the prices, and you quickly discover that in this regard, you can make better at home for a hell of a lot less dough. So let’s do that.

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room – There are two, when it comes to ketchup making at home.
1. Making ketchup takes an incredible amount of tomatoes – True and not true – If you’re wanting to can a whole bunch in order to enjoy house made through the cold months, then yes, it will take a lot of tomatoes. If you’ve got them, and you’re of a mind to preserve, then you should definitely throw ketchup into the mix, along with whole and sauced. That said, what you’ll see below are small batch recipes that don’t take a whole lot of tomatoes – And frankly, making a batch to last a week or two is well worth the effort, especially if you’re growing your own.
2. Making ketchup at home takes forever – Well, not forever, but all day, yeah – As mentioned, the recipes we’ve got for you here are small batch stuff, and can easily be done in under an hour or twos worth of actual work, but some of the prep and cooking does take a long time – We’re radically changing the stuff we start with, and that just can’t be rushed – So, you’d best be planning for a whole day, but it’ll be a great day, guaranteed, (and you can do other stuff, or even take off while things are cooking, if you use a slow cooker, as noted). And finally, if you’re canning, it’s gonna be an all day thing, guaranteed – And always review proper method and cooking times when doing so.

House made tomato ketchup - All other bow before it.
House made tomato ketchup – All other bow before it.

Classic Tomato Ketchup
2 28 oz cans Peeled Tomatoes, (Any version is fine so long as they’re peeled)
3/4 Cup Distilled White Vinegar
1/2 Cup Bakers Sugar
1/2 Cup Water
1 1/2 teaspoons Pickling Salt
1 teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground White Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Mustard
1/8 teaspoon Celery Salt
1 whole Clove

In a slow cooker set to high, add the tomatoes. If you found ground, peeled tomatoes, you’re good to go. If you have whole, or crushed, you need to process them first. Pulse with an immersion blender to achieve a nice, rough sauce consistency.

Rinse each can with a quarter cup of water and add that to the cooker, along with all other ingredients.

Cook uncovered for 8 to 10 hours, giving the sauce a good stir roughly every hour.

When the sauce is reduced in volume by roughly 50%, and is quite thick, turn off the heat and process the sauce again with the stick blender until very smooth.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer, into a nonreactive mixing bowl, removing any bits of skin, seeds, and the clove.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper balance as needed.

Transfer to a clean glass jar and refrigerate. It’ll last a good week, (if it survives that long.)

Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces
Mushroom ketchup hardens back to Medieval English sauces

Mushroom Ketchup (NOTE: This recipe requires advanced prep for the shrooms, so plan accordingly)

1 Pound fresh Mushrooms, (Portobello, Shiitake, button, or wild, of course)
2 Cups Water
1 1/3 Cups Champagne Vinegar
2 medium Shallots
1/2 Ounce dried Mushrooms
2 Tablespoons Dry Sherry
1 Tablespoon Pickling Salt
1 small clove Garlic
6 Tasmanian Pepperberries
2 whole Cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
1 Bay Leaf (California or Turkish as you prefer)

The day before you plan to cook the sauce, carefully wipe shrooms clean with a damp cloth, and trim away any bruised bits.

Slice mushrooms to roughly 1/4″ thick. Toss shrooms into a nonreactive mixing bowl, add the tablespoon of Pickling Salt and toss gently to incorporate.

Cover the bowl with a clean, dry cloth and allow shrooms to sit for 24 hours. Stir gently 3 or 4 times through the rest. Note that the shrooms will become quite dark during this process, and that A-OK.

An hour or two before the end of the 24 hour rest, heat 2 cups of water to about 110° F. Pour that into a mixing bowl and add the dried mushrooms. Stir to incorporate and let them steep until their nice and soft.

Trim, peel and mince garlic and shallots.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the reconstituted dried shrooms to a blender vessel or food processor. Carefully pour the soaking liquid into the blender, leaving any pooled gritty stuff out of your pour. Process the blend into a smooth mix, and transfer that to a large sauce pan.

Dump the salted, fresh shrooms into the blender, (don’t rinse it first), and process that to a smooth mix, then add them to the sauce pan.

Add 1/3 cup vinegar, the garlic, and shallots to the un-rinsed blender vessel and process to a smooth purée. Add this to the sauce pan, along with the rest of the ingredients, except the sherry, and stir to incorporate.

Bring the mix to a simmer over medium high heat, then lower heat to barely maintain the simmer. Cook for 1 to 1/12 hours, until the Mushrooms are very soft and the sauce has thickened notably.

Now’s the time to test for proper consistency – remove sauce from heat and take a spoonful of the sauce and place it on a clean saucer. Let that sit for 10 minutes – If at that point the sauce has remained homogeneous, it’s thickened enough. If a notable amount of liquid leaches out of the sauce, more cooking is needed. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes and retest until you reach proper thickness.

Run the sauce through a single mesh strainer to remove the whole spices, then process in a blender or with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Return the sauce to a clean sauce pan over medium high heat and heat through, stirring constantly. When the sauce simmers again, add the sherry. Cook on a low simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

Transfer sauce to clean, sanitized half pint jars and process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes, (Again, consult CFHFP for more specifics and altitude adjustments).

Allow sauce to marry for at least 8 weeks before use. The well sealed jars will last all winter, (but probably not!)

Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup
Green walnuts are a summer crop that make a wonderful earthy kethcup

Walnut Ketchup
This one goes way back to ketchup’s English roots, right down to those salty little fish. It’s admittedly a lot of work, but the reward is huge. Canned in half pint jars, they’re an amazing house warming gift – The taste of the 17th century brought to life. Green walnuts are a summer crop, usually available only from June through August, and maybe into September some years, so plan ahead.

45-50 Green Walnuts
3 1/2 Cups Cider Vinegar
1 1/2 Cups Malt Vinegar
1 Cup Dry Sherry
1 large Sweet Onion
1/4 Cup grated Horseradish, (straight – not mixed ‘sauce’)
2 ounces Anchovies (in oil or salt)
2 teaspoons ground Black Pepper
1 teaspoon dried ground Chile (hot or mild as you like)
1″ fresh Ginger root

The tough stuff goes first! Opening walnuts, especially green ones, isn’t easy, and it’s messy – Keep in mind that wood stains are made with these guys, so dress and guard your kitchen surfaces accordingly – They WILL stain hands, counters, etc, and it will NOT come off your skin! Some folks use a knife, others a hammer – Choose your weapon and cut, crack, or crush those things.

Place nuts in a nonreactive container, (a 1/2 gallon mason jar is perfect), and cover completely with the vinegars. Tightly cover your container and let them steep for a week – 7 full days.

On Day 8, transfer nuts and liquor to a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add all remaining ingredients and stir to incorporate. When the mix starts to boil reduce heat to maintain a vigorous simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Process the sauce with a stick blender to a nice, smooth consistency.

Run the sauce through a single mesh blender to remove any solids.

Carefully pour into clean, sanitized bottles or jars with air tight lids and seal.

Will last a good 6 months stored in a cool, dry, dark place.

Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts
Cranberry ketchup is amazing on pork, chicken, or roasted Brussels sprouts

Cranberry Ketchup
2 Cups Canberries, (fresh or frozen)
11/2 Cups Raw Cider Vinegar
1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 large Navel Orange
1 small Sweet Onion
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground Black Cardamom
1/8 teaspoon Sea Salt

Peel, trim and fine dice onion.

Zest and juice orange.

In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, add cranberries, onion, and cider vinegar, stir to incorporate. Reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook until cranberries are popped and soft, about 4-6 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and process with a stick blender to a smooth consistency.

Return sauce to heat and add balsamic, orange juice and zest, allspice, cardamom, pepper, and salt. Stir to incorporate. Cook on a low simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until sauce is notably thickened.

Remove from heat and process again to smooth the sauce out. You can run it through a single mesh strainer if you prefer a liquid, smooth sauce, or leave it rustic – It’s incredible on chicken, or pork, or roasted Brussels sprouts.

Store in a clean, nonreactive container, refrigerated. Will last a couple weeks, easy.

I better write about fish sauce

When I was researching for last week’s salsa post, I came across references to one of the earliest known forms of salsa, namely Garum, the pungent roman fish sauce. Then a friend posted a note about discovering that some kimchi she ate had shrimp in it, which she’s allergic to, (traditionally, it usually does include shrimp). That prompted a question about using fish sauce instead of shrimp in a kimchi recipe, (perfectly fine), and the fact that not all fish sauces are created equally. Then, a bit later, M and I were discussing that, when she noted that “proper use of fish sauce dictates that you shouldn’t taste it, (pretty much true, that), and, well – After all that I figured I’d better write about fish sauce.

While it’s enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, fish sauce is still not all that common in most kitchens, especially here in the U.S. Why that is becomes immediately evident when you open a bottle and take a deep whiff – Fish sauce is definitely funky – Yet the undeniable fact is this – If you’re looking for that certain je ne sais quoi to add salty and umami to a dish, fish sauce is the thing to reach for. And if that’s so, why did it die for so long? The answers are twofold – One, because of the fall of the Roman Empire, and two, fact is, it didn’t – It’s been alive and thriving in Asian cuisine, especially Vietnamese, for thousands of years.

Get yours here - Floor mosaic from a Garum shop
Get yours here – Floor mosaic from a Garum shop

It’s a reasonable assumption that humans have been saucing things since well into prehistory. Once we hit some form of civilization, that tendency multiplied in spades. Arguably no society has been more attuned to that trend than the Romans were. Roman chefs and diners seemed to disdain any food in its natural form – Everything had to be tweaked, poked and prodded into something else, and all of it was heavily sauced.

While the Roman Empire afforded its wealthy the chance to enjoy food, herbs, and spices from around the known world, the one thing that fueled everything was salt. It’s arguable that salt was in fact a tap root of their economy, as well as the key to their culinary hearts. In almost every place the Romans conquered, they looked for salt – in mines, evaporation projects, and boilers. Often enough, what they conquered was taken because of salt, because while the Romans traded in damn near everything, salt was simply a thing they couldn’t do without. First and foremost, it was a critical part of feeding and supplying the Roman Legions. Men and animals needed it to survive, let alone fight. It was also a huge part of what kept the lowly masses at bay – As long as they had salt and olives, and maybe a little bread, they were more or less quiescent, and that was critical for the ruling class to be able to remain thus.

Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made
Wherever the Romans went, fish sauce was made

Back to those sauces – What ruled back then, hands down, was fish sauce. It was in almost everything they ate, from Senator to plebeian. Now, that’s not to say that all fish sauce was created equally – Just as today some drink Veuve Clicquot and others Cooks, there was a wide variety of quality and price when it came to fish sauces. At the top of the heap was Garum, a relatively clear sauce made from the guts and gills of mackerel. This stuff was used at table, and could be fabulously expensive – The creme de la creme was called Garum Sociorum – It was made in Spain, and cost as much as an average Roman Legionnaire got paid in a year, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who got it and who didn’t. Next down the chain was Liquamen, basically, a sauce made in a manner quite close to the way it’s still done throughout Asia – The whole fish was salted and fermented, and a sauce was pressed from that after sufficient processing time. That was used by the cooks, and replaced salt in the vast majority of Roman dishes. Further down the chain came Muria, which as far as we could tell, would be the mixed dregs of the various higher cost fish sauces, pressed – and finally came Alec, which was literally a paste made from the sludge gleaned from cleaning a garum or liquamen making facility – Obviously, the plebeians got those last two products at their tables.

Fish sauces were so key to Roman life that production facilities were made anywhere and everywhere they could be. On the Italian peninsula, in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe and Great Britain, fish were set out in the sun, (basically, to almost get on toward rotting somewhat), and then fermented into the various sauces. It must have been a distinctly pungent experience, to say the least. There was even a certified Kosher version made in occupied Israel.

As fate would have it, in the late 5th Century, the German conqueror Odoacer became the first barbarian ruler of Rome, and the empire was a thing of the past. Along with the fall of the rulers came the fall of all that fish sauce processing – Turns out the Germans didn’t care for the stuff – So a huge network of cottage industries surrounding the production of fish sauce vanished in a relative heartbeat – Except that it didn’t.

It’s not a stone cold fact that the Romans made it to Vietnam, but they probably did. Ptolemy mentioned the garrison of Cattigara, which is likely Óc Eo, in modern day Vietnam. Roman artifacts have been found there, as well as throughout Southeast Asia – No surprise, given the depth and breadth of Roman conquest and trading practices. And it’s there, in Vietnam, and eventually throughout Asia, that fish sauce was firmly established and has remained in steady production. Whether it’s Núoc Mám in Vietnam, (among other variants, they make it out of everything else too – crab, squid, shrimp, you name it), Nam Pla in Thailand, (there’s over 200 different makers there), or Bagoong in the Philippines, it’s a sauce made by fermenting little fish, (usually something from the Herring or Sardine family), and letting them sit for months – The result is as popular as it was to the Romans, and they’ve been making it continuously for thousands of years.

Colatura di Alici di Cetara - Roman Liquamen royalty
Colatura di Alici di Cetara – Roman Liquamen royalty

And now to throw another wrench into the works – It turns out that the process and the sauce never completely left Italy after all – and the differences between what’s found there now and what’s found throughout Southeast Asia are profound and illuminating. In my pantry is a little round bottle labeled Colatura di Alici di Cetara. The contents are gorgeous, a rich amber liquid, obviously quite viscous. Open the stopper and wham! It is seriously fishy, funky and potent as the day is long. It’s not an acquired taste – You either dig this stuff or you don’t. Cetara is a little fishing village tucked into the coast of Campania, between Amalfi and Salerno. There, back in the Middle Ages, a bunch of local monks somehow rediscovered the recipe and process for liquamen and started producing it again, and the town has been doing so more or less every since. It’s made from anchovies caught between March and July, then barrel brined and aged until the late fall, when the precious stuff is pressed and bottled. This is as close to the real deal as you’ll ever get today – This is the stuff Roman cooks used to add salt and umami, (whether they knew it or not), to so many ancient dishes – And that’s the best way to use Colatura as well.

Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám
Red Boat 40° N, the King of Núoc Mám

Back in Vietnam, what they produce is a far cry from Colatura. There, I’ll boldly call the pinnacle of the art the sauce produced by Red Boat Fish Sauce. Find yourself a bottle of Red Boat 40° N, and you’ll be good to go. This is made from black anchovies from the Phu Quoc archipelago, and salt – That’s it. They’ve been making it the same way for hundreds of years, and it shows. Open that bottle and you get a much more nuanced presentation than Colatura – A gentle caress of your cheek, as opposed to an open handed slap. The fish and funk are still there, but much subtler, and there are other overtones as well, hints of Asia and the smell of Vietnamese cooking. To me, Red Boat is the Garum of our time – I’ll happily sprinkle a little out of the bottle onto whatever I’m having, and it’s awesomely good.

Get yourself a bottle of each of the above, and you’re good to go for all your fish sauce needs. But, before we talk about what to do with them, let me say this about the general state of the fish sauce nation – Having made a resurgence in the culinary world, there are a boatload of products out there. Just like badly prepared calimari, folks who say they hate fish sauce have, nine times out of ten, had crappy fish sauce – God knows there’s enough of that for sale. Let me save you much strife – Most of what you find in the average grocery store is crap. You have no idea what fish they’re talking about, and they sure ain’t tellin’ – At worst, this stuff is truly nasty, and at best, it’s insipid – Avoid it all like the plague and go with my recommendations.

As for what to do? Well, that’s easy – Replace salt with a drop or two of Colatura in damn near anything, and you’ll get not only the Salt note you’re looking for, but a hint of something deeper. Same goes for Red Boat. Used properly, aka very sparingly, you’ll get wonderful, subtle notes without any fishiness whatsoever. An on that note, I refer back to M, who’s comments came following a visit to Vietnamese joint in Seattle that overdid the fish sauce on whatever it was she ordered – The rule is hard, fast, and simple – If it tastes like fish sauce, you used too much. Chances are real good, you won’t make that mistake twice.