Esto es Queso Fundido

It’s a safe bet that, for as long as humans have been eating cheese, they’ve been doing so by melting the stuff and scooping up the results with something else that’s tasty. That’s done in some form or another all over the cheese eating world, but for my mind, the most sublime and delicioso dish in this regard comes from Mexico – Esto es Queso Fundido.

Queso Fundido de Urban

Since the Belyy Dom recently threatened to further screw with imports from our southern neighbors, I thought it appropriate to highlight the wealth of all great things cheesy that comes from Mexico. This is also a good time to point out some important misunderstandings about what’s a genuine Mexican dish and what’s purely Tex Mex.

So, let’s swing for the fence right off the bat – Anything made with some version of American cheese, (Velveeta, Super Melt, Extra Melt, whatever), is not Mexican food in any way, shape, or form. Yes, a lot of restaurants use this stuff, (even ones that say they make Mexican food – Keep in mind who they’re feeding…) Yes, in Texas queso really is widely made with it. Yes, after a beer or three, queso made of  nothing but Velveeta and a can of Rotel diced tomatoes and chopped green chiles tastes pretty damn good – But it’s not Mexican food, and that’s that. It’s also not just cheese variety that speaks to authenticity, it’s the volume, or proportion, per dish. Generally speaking, Mexican cooking uses cheese as a balanced part of a dish or meal – It’s not something buried under half a pound of molten goo – That’s a purely American affectation.

What is the Real Deal, then? Queso fundido, or sometimes queso flameado, would be it. Fundido means melted, flameado means flambé. Both are genuinely served down south in taquerias and restaurants. Fundido is pretty common, often in play at home for using up this and that from fridge or pantry, while flameado is done more for show or special occasions, (and it is it spectacular – Go to Benito’s in Fort Worth and you’ll see what I mean.) Fundido in restaurants is probably more popular up in the northern part of Mexico. 

Mise en place for queso fundido

Typically, you’ll see a blend of cheeses mixed with chorizo, chiles, tomato, onion, maybe cilantro and garlic, depending on what’s good or needs to get used. Traditional preparation calls for the cheese and the adjuncts to be cooked separately and mixed just prior to serving. Chorizo and veggies are most often sautéed, while the cheese might be prepared via stove top, oven, or broiler. Fundido or flameado are most often served with fresh tortillas as an appetizer, or as a condiment for primary dishes.

There’s somewhere around 40 unique varieties of Mexican queso down there, and they’re every bit as nuanced and delicious as cheese from anywhere else. Sure, cheese came to Mexico because of invading Spaniards and their cows, sheep, and goats, but hey – the locals made the best of it, and they still are – much to our benefit. There are varieties you can find almost anywhere in Mexico, like Queso Fresco, Panela, and Oaxaca, but there are far more that are truly regional, and home cheesemaking is still pretty widespread. Today there are at least a dozen major cheese producing states and regions. Most of the output comes from raw cows milk, (albeit the mass produced stuff is pasteurized), with a little bit here and there from sheep and goats – And there are efforts underway to increase the output and variety of non-cows milk cheeses.

Until quite recently, finding good quality, genuine Mexican cheese up here in los Estados Unidos was not all that easy, but that’s changing. In a lot of grocery chains, you’ll discover a few mainstays offered, and if your town is graced with a good Latin grocery or two, you’ll probably find a lot more. This Sunday morning, I stepped into the La Gloria market in Bellingham, Washington and found a thriving, vibrant store packed with great stuff, (including a fantastic carniceria). At first I was the only white person in there, (always a good sign), but then a father and two young sons arrived, and I watched Pop present his eldest to the counter, where he did a fine job ordering in halting Spanish – Very cool indeed. After working with the counter guy for a bit, he told me that most of the cheese they offer is imported from Mexico, but there are good queseros establishing themselves here in the states, which is very good news.

Alright, so – assuming that you can find decent Mexican queso, what would you want for stellar fundido? There’s a wealth of great melting cheeses that will fit the bill. Here’s my short list, along with reasonable substitutions in parenthesis.

Asadero (Provolone) – This is a slightly chewy fresh cheese with a nice tang. It melts really well, so it’s great for fundido, (or for chiles relleños).

Chihuahua (Jack) – This is my personal fave. From the state of the same name, and sometimes called Menonita in honor of the Mennonite farmers who first introduced it, good Chihuahua is like Jack cheese used (and aught) to be. Fresh it’s like a tangy mild cheddar with a very light bite – aged it sports a deep and complex tang.

Enchilado (Parmesan) – tangy, aged cheese rolled in paprika, that gets crumblier as it gets older – It’s like cotija that’s tastier, less salty and better at melting. Adds a really nice depth to a blend.

Manchego (Jack or Asiago) – The Mexican swing on the famous Spanish variety, this is a semi-firm cheese with a nice nutty flavor that melts very well. It’s a cows milk cheese, as opposed to the sheep milk Spanish version – The fireworks between the two countries over this topic are truly something.

Oaxaca (Mozzarella) – produced in balls as Mozz is, it’s a mild tasty cheese and a great melter.

My thoughts now turn to what you want from this dish when you make it. If you’re intending to eat everything you make right away, then there’s no need to consider the longevity of the final product. If on the other hand, you want queso that you can keep in the fridge for a few days and pull out for quick use, an alternative recipe is in order – I’ve provided the kicker to make that happen as well. Finally, if you want to try a hand at flameado, there’s a recipe for that, too – Just be bloody careful, (and don’t be ripped when you prepare it). It is not necessary to do the table presentation flaming and mixing trick, and I’ll strongly urge you not to try that, it’s all to often a recipe for disaster – What you’ll get is a lovely, smoky note from the tequila. 

Fresh chorizo seco
Fresh chorizo seco

Final note – Chorizo is not necessary for great queso, but it is a delight. Mexican chorizo is a whole different animal than Spanish – There are a bunch of varieties, and every one I’ve tried is great. Unlike the Spanish stuff, which is a hard, cured sausage, Mexican chorizo is a fresh product, perfect for grilling solo, adding to queso, or for tacos, and anything else you like. If you’ve got a good carniceria near you, I’ll guarantee they make it, so snag some. 

Tacos de chorizo con queso

Queso Fundido de Urban

1 Cup Queso Chihuahua 

1/3 Cup Queso Asadero

1/3 Cup Queso Manchego

1/3 Cup Queso Enchilado 

2-4 fresh Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles (sub 1-2 mild Hatch, Anaheim, or even sweet bells, if you don’t want heat)

1 small Sweet or Yellow Onion

2 fresh Roma Tomatoes

2-3 cloves fresh Garlic

3-6 stems fresh Cilantro

1 Cup cold Chicken Stock

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot (Corn Starch is OK for a sub)

1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil

Salt and freshly ground Pepper

Optional: 1/2 Pound fresh Chorizo (Or Chorizo Seco if you can get it)

 

Grate and portion all cheeses.

Stem, trim, and if necessary, field strip chiles, then dice.

Peel, trim and mince garlic.

Peel, trim and dice 1/2 onion, (I like about a cup of diced – Your mileage may vary).

Dice tomatoes (leave them whole and dice – The liquid is a good thing).

Fine dice the cilantro, stems and all.

If including, cook the chorizo in a heavy skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat – Again, you can incorporate this into the queso, per the steps below, or leave it solo – It’s up to you.

Fresh chorizo seco

Combine arrowroot and cold Chicken stock in a mixing bowl and whisk to completely dissolve and incorporate.

Sautéing the veggie mix for queso fundido

Add avocado oil to the hot pan and heat through. Add chiles and onion and sauté until the onion starts to brown slightly, about 2-4 minutes.

Sautéing the veggie mix for queso fundido

Add the tomato and sauté until they start to break down slightly, about 2-3 minutes more.

Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 1 minute.

Add the arrowroot slurry to the veggie mix and stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate thoroughly – Continue mixing until the sauce starts to thicken, about 1 minute.

Giving the condensed milk and arrowroot slurry a minute to thicken

Add the cheese in batches, (1/3 to 1/2 Cup at a time), and stir to incorporate thoroughly.

Stir the cheeses into the queso in small batches

If using, add the chorizo to the queso with a slotted spoon and stir to incorporate thoroughly.

Let the queso simmer for about 3-5 minutes so everything heats through and marries nicely.

Queso Fundido de Urban

Serve in a shallow bowl with fresh tortillas, or chips, with fresh pico de gallo, or as a side for tacos, enchiladas, chimis, what have you. If you can get (or make) fresh corn tortillas, that’s what you want. 

To make fresh corn chips, preheat oven to 375° F. Cut tortillas into even 6ths, and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet, and season lightly with salt. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until top side starts to brown, then flip the chips and bake for another 8-10 until golden brown and crispy. Serve hot.

For the Extended Dance Version of Queso –  Substitute 1 Cup of Evaporated Milk for the water, add the arrowroot to that, and whisk until arrowroot is fully dissolved. Proceed as per the recipe the rest of the way. The addition of the milk will create a queso that will stay more liquid instead of seizing up as the cheese cools – Will keep in an airtight refrigerated container for 3-5 days, and makes for easy reheating, or even room temp chowing.

For the Flameado – Add 1/4 Cup Reposado or Anejo tequila to the finished queso while it’s still in the skillet. Flame with a match and allow the alcohol to burn off as it does its magic on the top surface of the queso. Always add booze from a separate cup – Never straight from the bottle! And okay, if you really must, you can flame on and then bring it to the table while she’s still lit, but be bloody careful, for Pete’s sake!

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!

Vancouver B. C. – Chinatown and Serious Ramen

M and I are on our second year of a tradition I’m liking very much – Since we live within rock throwing distance of the Canadian border, we go up for a few days the week before Christmas. It’s a good time, sort of a ’tween holidays lull. Last year was just a quiet trip to Harrison Hot Springs, which is lovely and quaint and very relaxing indeed. This year, we chose a different route, one that was guided by food as much or more as any other criterion.

Sure, we all eat when we travel, and often enough, it’s a focus, but what came to mind for us was going to Vancouver B.C. specifically for two things – First, to eat some great Asian food (and spark our own creativity thereby), and secondly, to do a recon cruise through Chinatown, maybe pick up some supplies.

The Hotel Listel in Vancouver’s West Side

We chose a nice hotel, smack in the middle of the West End, a relatively bohemian chunk of the city. Rents and incomes are middle of the road here. Roughly bordered by Stanley Park to the northwest, Chinatown and Gastown to the east, Vancouver harbor to the north, and Granville Island to the south, the West End is home to lots of art, great food, and plenty of sidewalk entertainment, (as in, just soaking up the vibe). There is marvelous, flowing diversity in the people, food, commerce, and art.

The Hotel Listel prides itself on great art.

Our hotel was the Listel, which was remarkable affordable given the obvious quality therein. They pride themselves on abundant art throughout the place, their environmental concern and awareness, (which is palpable – No plastic anything in the room, recycling containers, solar power generation, to name but a few), and their food, which for us was hot and cold. We ate at the Timber restaurant, where the staff and service were once again excellent, but dishes were hit and miss. The calimari and chicken wings were delightful, while the cheese dip and shore lunch were not so much – The dip itself was great, but the crackers and potato skins provided there with were not done at all well, and the fish, while obviously quality, came to us soggy and a bit tired. That said, room service breakfast was truly excellent – The eggs were obviously top notch, and I’d be excited about the Benedict wherever I was eating, but especially so in bed on a lazy Monday morning!

Our room in the Listel was seriously cozy

Our room faced an adjoining high rise apartment building, which initially might seem disappointing, but the fact is, this is how and where people live here, so it should be embraced – Families doing their thing, a hairless kitty in the window checking out the gulls – it was all rather nice. The staff and the people in general were remarkably friendly. The rhythm of the area varied from absolutely hopping when we arrived on a rainy Sunday afternoon, to comfortably relaxed on a weekday. The Listel has valet parking for an additional fee, (about $30 a night), which includes unlimited access when you want your ride. Staff were happy to offer good honest advice on destinations, including where not to park in Chinatown, (avoid parking garages where your vehicle isn’t in plain sight of the street). 

Vancouver Chinatown

Neither M or I had been in Vancouver for literally decades, so some broad exploration was in order. We started with Chinatown, which may have its share of touristy kitsch, but is still vibrant and genuine for the folks who live there. There is plenty of great food and some wonderful shops throughout, (like the original Ming Wo Cookware building, a truly scary place, in a good way). We sought advice from a knowledgeable resident, with an eye toward food that the locals buy and eat – He strongly recommended T & T Supermarket. There are three of these in Vancouver – we chose the one smack in the middle of Chinatown, at 179 Keefer Place, (there was ample street parking nearby on our weekday visit). 

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

First off, yes, this is a grocery store, but it’s certainly not your average one. We’re used to seeking out high quality ingredients when we shop at home, and to do that we visit a litany of smaller specialty shops and markets. This place has it all under one roof, (and our guide had been absolutely correct – we were part of a very small handful of non-Asian shoppers.)

T & T Supermarket is an absolute delight

The differences here lie chiefly in variety and quality. From staples like noodles, rice, flour, and oil, to incredible varieties of very fresh seafood, meat, and produce, T & T is stunningly good – If I lived here, this is where I’d shop, and in light of that, we’re already planning for our next stay to have cooking facilities so that we can do just that. On this recon trip, our purchases were kept to Christmas treats for the granddaughters, some wonderful dried noodles, and a bottle of aged black vinegar – You can bring quite a variety of personal use food items back to the States, and there’s a good resource for that here.

Our T & T stash

On the way out of Chinatown, we decided to cruise Gastown, and thought about stopping for a beer and a bite, but despite the outward charm, we found it all a bit too trite and decided to head back to the West End. Across from our hotel there was a little hole in the wall noodle place, Ramen Danbo, that always had a line in front of it, and often, a really long line. When we arrived, there were only four people out front, so we decided to go for it. There are two in Vancouver, one in Seattle, and one in NYC, augmenting the 20 shops throughout Japan. This one has only 28 seats, which explains some of the constant line, but not all – The lions share of that is due to the fact that this is really good ramen – Fukuoka style Tonkatsu, from the southern end of Kyushu, to be precise.

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Naturally, good quality, fresh noodles are critical to ramen, and these guys certainly have those, from thin to thick, and soft to firm, as you please. As with all great soups, though, it’s more about the broth and the base. Tonkatsu is considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of Japanese ramen variants – it’s a complex, involved dance, indeed.

Ramen Danbo, Vancouver

First off, there’s the all important broth, that sublime elixir. It tastes simple as can be, and it may be, in terms of ingredients, but it’s sure not in terms of preparation. Traditionally, this is made from is pork trotters or knuckles, either split lengthwise, or whacked with a hammer to release the marrow, along with a few chicken feet, which add some serious protein, calcium, collagen, and cartilage to the mix, (AKA, some stuff that’s good for you, and some serious unctuousness). Add aromatics, (onion, garlic, ginger, leek, scallion), and finally, some fresh fatback, and then boil the shit out of it – In traditional circles, for as long as 60 hours, and you get this stock – Well, sort of anyway. Fact is, there is some seriously finicky cleaning called for to get broth as pretty as the stuff we ate at Danbo. Everything from those bones that isn’t white or beige has to go, or what you’ll get is a mud colored, albeit tasty broth, so some serious washing and nit-picky cleaning is in order. Unlike French stocks, this stuff is not clarified and filtered extensively before it’s served. With a bone broth cooked for as long as tonkotsu is, not only do you generate a bunch of gelatin, but virtually every other constituent gets into the act as well – fat, marrow, calcium from the bones themselves – All this stuff is why it’s so stunningly good.

Next comes the soup base. There are several primary Japanese variants – Tonkatsu, miso, shoyu, and shio – and Danbo does versions of all of those. Their signature base is ‘ramen-dare’, and they’re tight lipped about what’s in it – They say, and I quote, ‘our ramen-dare soup base is imported from Japan, made from select natural ingredients, and despite having low sodium, is filled with umami extracts.’ This apparent obfuscation is neither nefarious nor unusual, by the way. Like many signature ingredients, soup bases are closely guarded in Japan, so it’s next to impossible to discover exactly what’s in there. I sure don’t know what fuels Danbo’s dare, but I’d take a stab at kombu, plenty of shiitake, a little bonito, and a little shoyu – The Shiitakes would be the likely culprit for adding serious umami without a lot of sodium. As dark as the stuff looks in their menu pic, might be the possibility of deeply caramelized aromatics as well, (heavy on the onion, garlic, and ginger). The base is generally added to the broth in a ratio of around a tablespoon to a bowl, (or less, given how lightly colored theirs is when it hits the table.) 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Topping off Ramen Danbo’s offering is a little spoonful of red sauce – They call it tare, and all they’ll tell us is that it’s, ‘Togarashi red pepper powder mixed with Chinese spices and medicinal ingredients, this top-secret mixture brings out the flavour, umami, and full-bodied taste of our ramen,’ which significantly downplays what this stuff likely is – I’d guess that what we have here is a spin on classic Tonkatsu Master Sauce – a complex, heady mix of onion, tomato, garlic, apple, sake, kombu, hot chiles, and most if not all of the warm spices from Chinese five spice – Sort of a Japanese swing at Worcestershire sauce, (and some cooks put that into the mix, too). It is, in other words, seriously concentrated flavors, mouth feel and a decent punch in a very small package – Maybe a teaspoon crowns your bowl. 

Ramen Danbo - Seriously good stuff

Put all that together and you’ll be staring, glassy eyed, wowed, and very contently, at a mostly empty bowl if you’re me. Or you might be like the guy who sat next to us taking advantage of the kaedama offering – Additional helpings of noodles, which he did for a grand total of five servings – And He was a skinny little guy, too – Some guys get all the luck.

Ch, Ch, Changes, (and more coming)

It’s way past time for some remodeling hereabouts – Lots of cool things underway.

First off, I’ve cleaned up the general appearance of the site – Much less cluttered, and a pretty cool, retro kinda theme thing going too. You’ll find that posts stand out much better. Sidebar images have been removed, which makes things easier to read – I think the colors make for a much better look, (and they match our business cards too!)

I’ve also completely revised the Pages for Chiles, Herbs & Spices, and Sources & Suppliers, fleshing them out and making sure they’re up to date. There’s also a new, dedicated contact page, instead of a hard to find widget.

Poke around when you need some inspiration, new stuff, or just have a question.

if you don’t see something there you need, let us know, and we’ll find it for you.

I’ll be adding a few new pages as well – We’ll start with revising and expanding former posts on Essential Knives, and Knife Use and Care. Going forward, those will be much easier to find and use.

It’s Fall – Time for Roasted Tomato Sauce.

It’s Fall, which means that here, anyway, the tomatoes rule the garden when many other crops have moved on. If you plant any reasonable amount of them, you run into ‘what to do’ quite quickly – It’s absolutely not OK to let them rot, of course – preservation is a must, but so is fresh use – When you can go outside and hand pick your tomatoes for any meal, its a thing to be cherished, far as I’m concerned.

Virginia Sweets on the vine, ready for dinner prep
Virginia Sweets on the vine, ready for dinner prep

Then you’re into a decision – whether to make something that uses fresh or cooked, but hey – Why not do both? there’s arguably no finer use of fresh from the garden tomatoes than great sauce for pasta and a nice, crisp salad on the side.

There’s a big camp behind the championing of canned tomatoes for sauces, and I get that – There are plenty of times when that’s what I’ll go for too – But not when a fresh alternative is right out the door. Besides, whether it’s a San Marzano, or any other designer breed, a canned tomato is still a canned tomato. It’s processed, and you simply must cook with them, if for no other reason than to disperse the taste of can. Frankly, I don’t care how good the original fruit was – It’s been living in a can, OK? All that aside, the canned camp will further exclaim that most tomatoes we can afford in the store suck for taste, and they would not be wrong – Excluding farmers markets and CSAs, and damn near anything you grow in your own garden, of course.

Finally, Canites claim their stuff has it all over fresh for juice, something you certainly desire in a good sauce. Depending on what you grow, it can take quite a lot of tomatoes to reach the equivalent of a couple of cans – Be that as it may, it’s my experience, and that of most gardeners I know, that home grown crop volumes are not a problem. Frankly, if you use more fresh tomatoes than you would canned in order to achieve a commensurate volume of sauce, one could logically argue that you’ll produce a richer, more complex product, (and the fresh pectin makes for nice thickening, too). Finally, roasting fresh tomatoes will produce all the lovely juice you could possibly want, and deepens the flavor profile as well – That’s game over, far as I’m concerned.

30 minutes at 400° F yields perfect roasted tomatoes
30 minutes at 400° F yields perfect roasted tomatoes

This year, we grew Mighty Matos, grafted plants that produce astounding yields and quality. Ours come from Log House Plants out of Cottage Grove, Oregon. If your local nursery doesn’t carry Mighty Matos, bug them until they do – The yield, quality, disease resistance, and heartiness of these plants is truly stunning. One of their varieties is the Virginia Sweet, a large, fluted, truly lovely little beast. What initially starts out as pale green ripens through orange to orange-red monsters of a pound or more – They’re an heirloom, beefsteak variety with a rich, tangy-sweet flavor that shines in sauces, salsa, and anything else you can think of. I highly recommend you try them next year.

Really, with ingredients this fresh, the trick is to go minimalist, and not add or do too much to what nature has already perfected. The recipe below makes plenty for 4 to 6 folks, or avanzi per due, (leftovers for two, I think…) A classic soffritto provides all the backbone you’ll need. You can scale this up or back quiet easily, too.

Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce

12 – 16 fresh Tomatoes (pick enough to fill a baking sheet, and you’re good to go)

(Optional) 1 Pound fresh ground Pork

1/2 Cup Onion

1/2 Cup Carrot

1/2 Cup Celery

4-6 cloves fresh Garlic

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/4 Cup hearty Red Wine

4-6 leaves fresh Basil

1 sprig fresh Parsley, (or 1 Tablespoon dry)

Shake or two of ground Chile

Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste.

Dice onion, carrot, and celery, smash and mince garlic.

Roll and chiffonade basil leaves, mince the parsley.

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position.

Cut all of your tomatoes in half, (if you like some fresh in your sauce, leave two or three out and just dice them)

Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet, and add tomatoes, cut sides down. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a little more olive oil.

Roast for 30 minutes, then remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.

Measure and assemble remaining ingredients, then set your mise en place beside your stove for easy access.

When you cook, get your mise en place right, every time
When you cook, get your mise en place right, every time

In a stew pot, Dutch oven, or big, heavy skillet over medium heat, add the pork if you’re using that. Sauté until evenly browned, then transfer the meat to a large bowl, leaving the juices and fat in the cooking vessel.

Fresh ground pork isn’t absolutely necessary, but...
Fresh ground pork isn’t absolutely necessary, but…

Add the remaining olive oil to the pan and allow to heat through. 

Add carrots and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add onion and continue cooking for 2-3 minutes more, then add celery and sauté for a couple minutes longer. Add the garlic and parsley and sauté for another minute, until the raw garlic smell dissipates. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Classic soffritto gives your sauce proper backbone
Classic soffritto gives your sauce proper backbone

Let the pan heat for a minute, then add the red wine, and scrape all the naughty bits loose from the bottom of the pan. Allow the raw alcohol smell to dissipate before proceeding.

Add one cup of water and allow to heat through.

Add the tomatoes by hand, removing the skins as you go – They’ll be super soft and easy to squish right into the pot – stir to incorporate.

get your hands in there and squish those roasted ‘matoes!
get your hands in there and squish those roasted ‘matoes!

Add the pork and stir to incorporate. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning as needed.

Allow the sauce to heat to simmering, then turn heat down to low. Continue a slow simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally. The sauce will be thin at first, but will thicken nicely as it simmers – Stop cooking when you’re sauce is a bit thinner than you like it, remove from heat, add the basil, stir to incorporate.

Simmer gently until you arrive at your desired thickness
Simmer gently until you arrive at your desired thickness

If the sauce thickens or reduces too much for your liking, add enough water to get things where you like it.

Taste and adjust seasoning if needed prior to serving.

From garden to table in under 3 hours
From garden to table in under 3 hours

The sauce will last for  a few days, refrigerated in an airtight, non reactive container, but I’ll bet it won’t last that long.

Home cooks, it’s time to stop sawing on that second fiddle

OK, so yeah, I’m a food professional by trade – I manage a very busy bakery café. A lot of folks assume that us commercial types lord it over home cooks in materials, techniques, processes, and everything else good – Hell, a decent chunk of what I do here involves trying to translate some of those things to y’all. Yet there’s a simple truth that doesn’t get written about often enough, and it needs to be, so here it is – There are a lot of dishes that are better prepared at home than in any restaurant – No, really, there are. So, in other words home cooks, it’s time to stop sawing on that second fiddle.

In the best place I cooked and learned to cook, the presiding Chef never really told me exactly what to do. He didn’t recite, hand over, or otherwise precisely impart a recipe, ever. Instead, he told me to pay attention, and to use all my senses to grasp what it was he was trying to teach me. I’m quite certain that he didn’t actually have any recipes written down anywhere, (and I think that’s true in a lot of great places to eat, both home and restaurant). He wanted me to see, smell, feel, and taste my way to cooking well. That lesson has served me well my whole culinary life.

Cooking in many a restaurant is kinda like seeing a rock band live that sings every song and plays every solo exactly like you heard it on the album – It may be good, hell it might even be great, but is that really why your go to see them play live? As a musician, I don’t ever play the same song the same way. How it comes out is determined by the place, time, and my mood, and cooking should be done the same way. I make legendary Mac and cheese, but it’s never, ever the same. The basics of the recipe and process, the ratios of the béchamel, and the handling of the roux? Yes, those are consistent – But the cheeses and pasta I use, and the seasoning, well, that depends on what I’ve got – what I see, smell, taste, and feel when I scope out pantry and fridge. What I end up with is consistently excellent stuff, but it never is, and more importantly, doesn’t want to be the same every time. Even great restaurants are constrained by their menus, (albeit the truly inspired ones change that up, even daily). Good or even mediocre ones do the exact same thing every time, because that’s what a lot of diners want – To each their own, and to the rest of us, the spoils – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.
Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.

So, did I mean that line? We can do better at home than most restaurants? Oh yes, yes indeed I did. I don’t know about y’all, but there’s a reason that we don’t eat out very often. What we can and do create at home on a regular basis far surpasses all but really good restaurants. Your kitchen can and should be absolutely no different. So why is that?

Even in really good restaurants, there are things working against spontaneous creativity. Anyone who’s ever worked in a serious restaurant knows firsthand about the division between prep and cooking for service. Prep in restaurant cooking is huge, paramount in fact – The folks who cook for service might be the rock stars, but they’d never even get on stage without some seriously kickass prep cooks making it possible. It might not occur to you when you sit down in a restaurant, but let me put it this way – You don’t really think that every piece of beef, chicken, fish, every vegetable and salad, every dessert is made from scratch, just for you, and that nothing had been started before you got there and ordered it, do you? Don’t get me wrong, to a decent degree it is true that what you order is made just for you, and in great restaurants, it is all made from scratch. That said, I will guarantee that proteins have been portioned, prepared ahead, and/or par cooked, as have all those vegetables, salads, and desserts.

In a restaurant that does a hundred or more covers for a dinner service, there’s no way on God’s green earth that they could make all that to order and be even close to keeping up with the time constraints required for great service. This is just the fact of cooking at that kind of volume. My bakery café is pretty simple – We bake bread and various sweets, and we sling sandwiches, soup, and salad. Even so, it takes a lot of time to get ready to serve lunch to a couple hundred people. We start at five in the morning, so that’s about 6 to 7 hours of work by a half dozen people, all dedicated to getting ready for lunch. All that happens long before you ever sit down to eat. And again, that’s for a relatively simple operation. Now, you get into fine dining, especially cutting edge stuff, and you’re talking a hell of a lot more work than that to make sure that your dinner is spectacular.

And then there is the food, the raw commodities, what we use to make lunch or dinner for you. We use really good ingredients, and I mean really good. The best restaurants use stuff that makes mine look pretty pedestrian. But in a lot of good or merely okay restaurants, you’d actually be surprised about how meh the quality of the ingredients are. That’s not an attempt to rip you off, mind you – it’s simple economics. When you have a big menu, you’re making educated guesses about some potentially very expensive things, so more often than not, you buy good enough, not great. Then there’s the prognostication required for economic success – How much of dish A, B, or C will people order? How many people are really going to come in to eat on this day? Even if you’re really good at forecasting, you have to be prudent and conservative about what and how much you buy.

In the old days, there was a built in safety valve for this, called Garde Manger – That took care of a lot of leftovers in most restaurants, and it still does in some – That’s where stuff that didn’t sell becomes family meals for the crew, or get transformed into something delightfully new to offer guests the next day. This is not an easy job – It’s as much art as it is technique and ability. Because of that, you don’t see it in as many places as you used to, which is a shame. I will however take a moment to boast – that garde manger concept is exactly what we impart here on a very regular basis – Cook something on day one, and make a week’s worth of great meals out of it – It’s economical, it’s tasty, and it teaches you to cook on the fly, all of which are very good things.

So, in many ways, restaurants are constrained by menus, time, and economy. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions – The very good Mexican place in my little town in Washington state makes pork shanks that they cook low and slow all day, every day, that are absolutely sublime – But as many diners in many Mexican joints know, that’s an exception to the general rule. I’ll say it again, I can and do cook better than 90% of the places I might think about going to, and frankly, the other 10% are probably too damn expensive for me to justify. Even places I like, with a proven track record more or less screw up on an all too regular basis. A dish I I’ve ordered many times might be overcooked, proportioned wrong, or just made without obvious love and care on any given day. We tried a breakfast place the other week that is new in town and has been getting rave reviews. What I ordered, while initially visually appealing, was frankly lousy. There was little or no seasoning, and virtually 50% of the potatoes (in a hash dish) were burned and heavily soaked in oil – And it wasn’t cheap – And these were folks who claim three generations of restaurant ownership and management. Get the picture? Fact is, in our own kitchens we can do better, with great ingredients, for far less than those meals cost out there. And we do it in the place we love most, for the people we love most. What could possibly be better than that?

A slow cooked pork roast is a thing of beauty
A slow cooked pork roast is a thing of beauty

Take that pork I mentioned back a spell – it’s a relative bargain in the stores these days. So a big ol’ pork roast, set on top of mire poix in a slow cooker and left to do its thing for 8 hours? Try and find that around town. Pair it the first night with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, a hunk of crusty bread and a nice glass of red wine, and you’ve got a million dollar meal. The next night, shred that stuff, cook some rice, chop up some onion, some chiles, some cilantro, and some nice fresh cheese, and make the best street tacos you’ll find anywhere. Night three? How about taking leftover rice, combined it with some chopped up pork, a little ginger, some scallions, a scrambled egg or two, and a nice Chinese inspired sauce, and make fried rice to die for. And if there’s any left over on night number four, dice up that pork, make a nice red sauce, (crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, olive oil, garlic, lemon, oregano, and fresh pepper. Serve it over angel hair pasta with a dusting of grated parmigiana, and go wild.

And let’s not forget those ingredients. How often do you go shopping every week? Do you really love to cook? Then answer me this; what’s keeping you from stopping by the store every couple of days, and doing just a little shopping? If you do that, and let your eyes and your nose, and your imagination rule the roost, you’re going to end up with beautiful food. Yes, the best restaurants get food deliveries every day, but I’ll guarantee you this – you will be much better at picking beautiful tomatoes then I can when I look over the 80 pounds that comes into my café every day. The same goes for virtually all other vegetables and fruit, cheese and proteins, bread and pasta – and the list goes on and on. When that beautiful stuff comes home with you, and you’ve had a fortifying sip or two of that great red wine you bought, and you focus your attention on those gorgeous, fresh green beans you just bought, sautéing them in butter, with slivered almonds, fresh lemon juice and zest, and a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper? They’re going to be better than anything you could be served out and about, guaranteed.

Boston Brown Bread

If you’re from New England, and specifically Boston, you know all about Boston Brown Bread – Pared with Boston baked beans and fresh cole slaw, it’s graced many a Saturday night supper throughout New England.

The B&M company, not to be confused with the huge British food conglomerate, has been making baked beans and brown bread for over 150 years, and there’s a reason they’re still around doing just that .

A lot of folks, even locals, think that B&M is a Massachusetts based enterprise, but it ain’t so. Way back in 1867, George Burnham, started a canning business, was then joined by Charles Morrill, and Burnham & Morrill was born. B&M has been a fixture in Portland, Maine at One Bean Pot Circle, ever since.

Their rightfully famous beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and their brown bread is the one, as far as I’m concerned. Their cans are filled with batter and the bread is baked in the cans, and that’s just how you do it.

In the 19th Century, Brown Bread was poverty food throughout the British Empire, although it eventually gained cache for the health benefits of the mixed flour used to make it. Brown Bread crossed the big pond, and became a staple for the colonists, then a sentimental favorite – Keep in kind, once upon a time, lobster was considered ‘poverty food,’ so there’s no stigma attached to liking brown bread.

Boston Brown Bread is a great recipe for folks who are nervous about bread baking – It’s easy, fast, and almost foolproof – Brown Bread is steamed, rather than baked, and requires very little prep time.

If you’ve never tried it, do. Served hot with fresh butter, ham, baked beans, and cole slaw, you got that legendary Saturday Night Suppah – And it’s great the next morning, too.

 

Boston Brown Bread

1 Cup Whole Milk

1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour

1/2 Cup Rye Flour

1/2 Cup Corn Meal

1/3 Cup Dark Molasses

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon Allspice

1/2 teaspoon Orange Zest

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 Tablespoon Butter for greasing cans

NOTE: there are folks, (even B&M), who make this with raisins or currants within – I’m not one of them, but if you are, you can add a quarter cup to this recipe.

there are also purists who pull eschew the addition of flavorings such as vanilla, allspice, and orange zest – I’m not one of those, either.

 

Rinse and dry two 28 Ounce metal cans with one end of each cut off.

Move a rack to the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 325° F.

Choose an oven safe pot or dish deep enough so that you can fill it with water to about halfway up the sides of the cans. Boil enough water on the stove top to fill that pot or dish.

Lightly coat the insides of the cans with vegetable oil.

In a mixing bowl, combine wheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, allspice, and salt.

Add the molasses, milk, vanilla and zest to the dry ingredients and thoroughly combine.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans. Cover the top of each can with a double thickness of aluminum foil and tie securely with kitchen string. Place the cans in your deep pan and slide that into the preheated oven.

Carefully fill the pan with boiling water to about halfway up the sides of the cans.

Bake for 70 to 75 minutes. At seventy minutes, remove the foil tops. When the edges of the bread begin to pull away from the sides of the cans, you’re there.

Remove the cans from the oven, place on a wire rack to cool for 1 hour before sliding the bread out of the cans. If the bread is a bit sticky, a thin bladed knife run around the can will free it up.

Don’t forget to have plenty of fresh, local butter on hand…

Why We Do What We Do

I get asked on a regular basis why we do what we do here. Here’s my answer.

When I research a recipe or a subject, I look at a lot of food blogs, especially if I want to do something that I think is relatively original. I was doing that today, and I waded through a bunch of ‘very successful’ blogs. You know how I could tell that they were very successful? Because of the amount and general level of obnoxiousness derived from advertising on their sites – I left without reading through whatever it was I’d gone there to check out. And talk about non-sequitur? Ads for cosmetics, clothes, and a dozen other items having not one damn thing to do with food or cooking. In case you hadn’t noticed, I find stuff like that incredibly irritating. The Pioneer Woman, Rachel Ray, Tyler Florence claiming the cookbook is dead – all that? That’s not serious cooking, that’s hype, at best – The food equivalent of country music out of Nashville these days, (which I refer to as pop with fiddles). Frankly, if that’s success, well then, y’all can have it.

It’s the latest trend in monetizing what is ostensibly a food site. Monetize, if you’re unfamiliar, is an economic term. I know, ‘cause my Pop taught Econ at Harvard and MIT, (and who knows, maybe some of his smarts trickled down to me). What it means, literally, is to turn something into money – to utilize it as a source of profit. Now, if that’s why you have a food blog, good for you, but I’m out.

grow it, preserve it, whenever possible.
grow it, preserve it, whenever possible.

I was cooking for Monica and a good friend the other night, and it was his first visit to our kitchen, (though he’s had plenty of my cooking at the café). When he put his nose to the shaker of our signature seasoning salt, he couldn’t believe we’ve never monitized it. He’s a business man, and he greatly admires my cooking, so that was a compliment, no doubt, but it’s not why I labor away in relative obscurity here. That, I do because I have to – I gotta read, research, mull over, tweak, test, refine, create and write about food, and then share what I discover. Frankly, if no one read it but me, I’d still do it, (but don’t get me wrong, I greatly appreciate y’all being regulars here).

That’s the stuff - Our Signature Seasoning Salt Blend
That’s the stuff – Our Signature Seasoning Salt Blend

Now, for the record, down the line, I do intend to write a book or three based on what I do here, and frankly, I’m already working on that. Furthermore, if and when I ever come up with an original, really cool food item that I genuinely want to share with the world, I’ll do that too, (and frankly, that seasoning salt blend is getting mighty close). I do this because I love to, and because I’m driven to it – I could no longer stop writing about food than I could stop breathing.

Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but as The Corporate Machine figures out that they can profit grandly from our labors, all the ultra-commercialized stuff spirals out of control. It comes in waves, like boy bands. First, there was the need for nutritional info if you were going to be a ‘serious’ food blogger. Then came ridiculously professional-level photography, without which you couldn’t get a recipe accepted in any of the über-hip sites at the time. That morphed into full blown food styling, (right – like when we cook at home, every aspect of the meal is placed, staged, and choreographed – uh huh…) Now, if you’re cool, your site is festooned with multiple ads for a bunch of consumerist bullshit that has zero to do with food or cooking – This is how the next Food Channel Super Food Dipstick gets anointed.

I write about food for some pretty simple reasons. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is crap – Owned and foisted upon us by some pretty crappy mega-corporations. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I want to discover those cool secrets that professional Chefs and kitchens employ, and whenever possible, let the kitty out of the sack. That’s just how I’m wired. I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well.

Today, some 8 years downstream from very humble beginnings, this blog has followers from all over the world. It’s won accolades from specific regions and countries for faithful renditions of beloved dishes. Stuff that I truly came up with first has been copied, and a couple of them are now fairly mainstream. It has a lot more followers and regular visitors than I ever thought it would – There are tens of thousands of genuine visits and visitors here every month. Is that a lot in the Big Picture Cool Food Blog scale? Well, no, when you consider that those tragically hip sites get millions of visitors – Frankly, I don’t really care about that, in the competing with others sense of the phrase – If you’re here, reading these posts, and you like them, and you come back when I post a new one, then I’m a seriously happy camper. While it still holds true that I cook to make M happy and write to make me happy, I love sharing stuff that helps y’all expand your horizons and eat well.

Now, all that said, I still get asked the following questions a lot, so let me just address them again – they are,
Why don’t you list nutritional information for your recipes,
Why don’t you post exact prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?

In a nutshell, here’s why;

Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have a clue about that. On the sites that do this, portions are most oft listed in ounces, so let me just ask – Do you weigh what you cook and what you plate before you eat it? Didn’t think so… If I post a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and so on. This ain’t a restaurant and neither is your house. None of us need to eat the same portion for reasons of consistency or economic viability, unless maybe we’re on a specific diet, in which case you’re not getting your recipes here, (ideas though, maybe).

For the record, I predominantly scale recipes for two, with room for leftovers, the idea being that most of the folks visiting here, like M and I, cook that way. Factor in the consideration that we heavily champion the concept of cooking one thing that will generate several meals – A whole chicken, roast, or whatnot that can easily become three or four great meals- That’s the smart way to cook if you want to eat well, be efficient, and economically savvy. And I’m still not gonna list nutritional data, sorry – For that, you’re on your own. As mentioned liberally herein, a recipe is nothing more than an idea, a guideline at best – Most people can and will tweak it, often to quite a degree – You should read some of the responses I get along the line of, ‘I made it, but I didn’t use any chocolate’…

Don’t get me wrong, nutrition is important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to do that is to buy, cook, and eat good things. Buy locally whenever you can. Buy fresh food, and avoid highly processed stuff like the plague. Read the labels and avoid things that are there only to help some corporation keep things on the shelf longer, or to keep it looking pretty beyond the time it should. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can from scratch. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as our recipes go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just use a calorie counting app, and you’re off to the races.

Next up is prep and cooking time.

Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same speed, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally – does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? The answer to that isn’t rhetorical – it’s a resounding no. Listing prep time is often a disservice, for my mind. What it can and all too often does is to set up arbitrary determinations of success or failure in a home cook’s mind – It probably leads to mistakes, as folks look at the clock and start to rush or miss something things trying to keep up with an arbitrary determination of ‘normal’ prep time – Think that’s crazy? I assure you it’s not and that it does happen that way – It ends up souring a lot of folks on cooking, let alone websites and cookbooks.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right now? Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – No one should give a rats ass how long it takes, if you have the time and want to make it. If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.

Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.
Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.

Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a ridiculous pantry and spice cabinet, (ask M what she thinks of the Asian section alone.) You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicate a hell of a lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? I think the question is rhetorical. Anyway, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second – in this day and age, almost anyone in this country and many others can get anything they want. And if you can’t, well, I’ve sent grits to Sweden, cornmeal to Australia, and mustard seed to Israel – if you don’t find something you wanna try, hit me up, and I’ll get it to you.

When I say pantry, I mean pantry...
When I say pantry, I mean pantry…

I’ve also gotta point out that a lot of what we do gets designed because we had stuff in house that needed to get used, so that’s what we put in there. Again, like a broken record, a recipe is a guideline – Don’t like hot chiles, but have sweet peppers? Use those, and don’t think twice, it’s alright. If you’re here with any frequency, you know we strongly encourage and desire experimentation on your part – If you’re making it, put what you like in it. In any case, did you know that you can’t copyright or claim recipes? True story, that – All you can call your own is the verbiage and order in which you explain how to make the dish – As such, I’ve got no more right to my recipes than you do, so go wild. Anyway, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir. Only the Food Goods know what you’ll do with them.

We do this because, many years ago, dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. That’s more than good enough for me.

It’s Time To Fix Home Kitchen Food Waste

As much as we love Thanksgiving, there’s a problem there, one that we’ve tried to address as an enduring theme here – managing and avoiding food waste. Huge amounts of it, and frankly, it’s not just the holidays. It’s every day, in our home kitchens. Massive waste. It’s time to address that.

Consider this shocker, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Over this Thanksgiving week, Americans will throw out almost 200 million pounds of turkey alone.” That’s one weekend, gang. They go on to state that, “The average household of four is wasting about $1,800 annually on food that they buy and then never wind up eating.” And there’s more – “A recent survey in three U.S. cities found that the average American tosses out 2.5 pounds of perfectly edible food each week. At the top of the list: produce and leftovers.” And the coup de grace, “Households are actually the biggest contributor to the amount of food going to waste across the country — more than grocery stores or restaurants or any other sector.” All that food is the primary thing sent to dumps and landfills in this county, and that leads directly to the production of a hell of a lot of methane as all that stuff decomposes. Methane is a serious greenhouse gas – Not good in a world that’s rapidly heating up.

Now if you doubt those household waste figures, let me share something with you – As the General Manager of a cafe that does well north of 4 million bucks in sales annually, I have a few real concerns to deal with – I need to keep my folks happy, my guests safe and happy, and make money for my company. That’s it, in a nutshell. Do those things, and everything else will fall in place. Now, we certainly have waste, but let me put it into perspective for you – Our waste, our total waste, from a full time bakery and a kitchen putting out those kind of numbers, is around 3%. That’s roughly 1.5% from both sides, café and bakery. Now, compare that to the figures from the NRDC above and tell me – Do y’all think you’re anywhere near that efficient? The answer is a resounding NO – Not even close. That’s what we need to fix, because friends and neighbors? Your concerns are not any different than mine are, truth be told – You have to keep your crew happy, safe, and fed, and you cannot afford to waste the kind of money those figures up there reflect – None of us can.

There’s your post holiday bummer for you. So, as I always like to ask when somebody brings me gratuitous doom and gloom – What are we gonna do about it? Well, again, what we’re going to do is go back to talking about planning, and about thorough use of the food we buy. Why? Because we must, without fail.

That concept I mentioned, thorough use of what we buy, starts with shopping. So let me ask – When you shop, you make a list, right? If not, (and I know there are some of you who just wing it, so stop fibbing), you’ve got to start planning, carefully, if you’re going to avoid the kind of food waste we’re guilty of here. That means going through your pantry, cupboards, freezer, and fridge, and seeing what you’ve got and what you might need.

The idea here is to change a critical aspect of the way most of us shop – Instead of thinking about what might be fun or nice to buy, we need to look at what’s already in your kitchen with a couple of perspectives – First, what do I already got that’d be great to cook with, and secondly, what do I got that needs to be dealt with right now – before it turns to waste?

When you do that, you find the things that are maybe on the verge of going bad, and you use them, convert them, make them into something you’ll cook with, rather than let them go to waste. Got tomatoes about to become long in the tooth? Put them in an airtight container and freeze them. You can make sauce, soup, or stew later, when you’re ready. In fact, any and every vegetable or fruit you’ve got that is ‘getting there’ should be treated this way – You don’t really think folks buy bananas intending to make banana bread, do you?

Case in point – M and I invented a Chicago Dog Pizza the other night, because, one – we wanted pizza, and two – We didn’t have any of the proteins we’d normally put on pizza, (No ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, etc) – What we did have was two very good locally made hot dogs that needed to get eaten, some sport peppers, and a couple tomatoes that needed to get used as well. I made some dough, and a sauce tinged with a little zing of yellow mustard and celery salt. We used cheddar cheese, and a little sweet onion, and it was actually fantastic – I’d go back to a place that makes that and order it again.

When I say ‘go through your freezer and fridge,’ I mean it! Touch everything there – EVERYTHING! We do this daily in restaurant work, and you should do it at least weekly at home – That’s the number one way to find stuff that needs to get used and get it in play before its too far gone, (And conversely, not doing so is the number one reason we waste so much food). I’ve seen a lot of fridges and freezers in my day, and many are downright terrifying. Don’t let yours get there – Police it regularly, and practice FIFO at home, (First In, First Out), combined with dating things in there, and you’ll be well on your way to running a tighter ship.

When you do make that list, think in much broader terms than one meal at a time. A chicken, one nice, fat fresh chicken, can easily make three meals – Roasted chicken, chicken tacos, chicken noodle soup. Turns that $15 bird into a much more efficient protein, doesn’t it? We talked pretty extensively about this in a couple of posts, one on Meal Planning, and one on Planning for Leftovers – Check those out.

And then, when you’re ready to go to the store, do yourselves a favor – Abide by the old adage, ‘Don’t shop hungry.’ Seriously – It’s why we shop on Sundays, our mutual day off, and go out to eat beforehand. Hungry shopping leads to binge shopping, and that’s bad for the wallet and the waste log. Stick to your list, and you’re good to go.

That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t snag something that looks great when you’re there – Just be judicious in that vein. The reason we waste so much produce is because its pretty, and stores do a great job of presenting it. That’s fine, and it’s stuff you should eat, but if you go getting all crazy in that department, thinking you’re going to use all this stuff before it spoils, nine times out of ten, you’re dead wrong – Pick a thing or two at most, and make sure you use it. If it floats your boat, add it to your list downstream. If it doesn’t, then move on.

A lot, and I mean a lot of folks snag stuff because they’ve heard of it, seen it on Iron Chef, or something along that line – The question is, do you know what Jicama tastes like? (It’s great, by the way – Sorry…) This being the 21st century, whip out the ol’ smart phone and do a quick research on what it is that’s got your attention. You may or may not like turnips, Chinese long beans, or star fruit, and a quick check can give you enough of a clue to make a more informed decision than, ‘it’s so pretty.’

Finally, when you get your booty home, think about waste when you start to cook. What we throw away day in and day out isn’t always waste – A lot of it is food we didn’t use. Those NRDC quotes came from a piece NPR did with Massimo Bottura, a Michelin starred Chef who shows us how to think differently about what we throw away. He even got some friends together, like Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, and Ferran Adrià, to name just a few, and wrote a cookbook aimed at reducing household food waste. It’s a spiral-bound gem titled, Bread is Gold, and you want it in your culinary library. Check out the NPR piece here.

To get you started, here’s the best potato stock you’ll ever make. It’s a great thing to make, divide into portions, and whip out to make amazing sauce, soup, or stews with.

Potato Peel Stock

5 Cups Water
Peels only from 6-8 Potatoes
1 medium Sweet Onion
2 Carrots
1 stalk Celery
1 Bay Leaf
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Fresh Ground Pepper

Rinse and rough chop onion, carrots, and celery.

Throw everything into a stock pot over high heat until it begins to boil.

Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 2 hours.

Remove from heat, run the stock through a colander and discard the veggies

Allow to cool to room temperature, then portion and freeze, or use right away.

Where the last of your turkey needs to be
Where the last of your turkey needs to be

And finally, for the record, Kevin Rosinbum, a talented photographer and cook I know wrote this yesterday afternoon, above a picture of a glorious pot of homemade soup. “If you toss out your holiday carcass, you’ve already lost.” Truer words were never written.

We had that turkey dinner of course, followed by two rounds of stunningly delicious sandwiches, (I think I like them best of all). After that, what was left of the meat got pared off the carcass, and that got thrown into the oven to roast, and then into the slow cooker – Just the carcass and the aromatics it had cooked in – covered with water and left to do its thing for 8 hours. The result, strained once, is the most unctuous, fragrant, amazing stock you could ever hope for. With carrots, celery, garlic, leftover potatoes, and the rest of the meat, it’s now a pot of our own glorious soup, simmering away as I type.