We did up some ribs for dinner the other night, in honor of our middle son and his partner coming over for dinner. As we are want to do, we posted some pics all over social media, and as such, have had a bunch of requests for the recipe, so here goes – Spare Ribs with a Citrus Fennel Glaze.
The sauce is the star here, and for good reason. It’s a grade A example of the organic way M and I arrive at a dish, based largely on what we’ve got on hand, and often initiated by a single thing – In this case, a left over blood orange that had given up it’s zest for an earlier meal with our youngest kid.
Initially, we were leaning toward a Chinese style rub, but James is allergic to sesame, so we went off on a tangent. M found that blood orange and wondered aloud if we couldn’t do something with that. A short brainstorming session yielded what you see herein. This sauce could be used on a lot of things, from chicken or beef, to Brussels sprouts or carrots.
While this might seem like alchemy, I assure you, it’s not. Often, when we’re brainstorming things, I’ll whip out our copy of The Flavor Bible, a book that you aughta have in your kitchen, if you don’t already. You’ll find a wealth of parings and affinities therein that truly can and will spark your imagination and creativity.
And I can’t stress enough to be bold in endeavors like this – If you like stuff, and you think that stuff might go well together, then try it. If you’re at all nervous about committing to a full blown recipe, then cut off a little piece of this and a little piece of that, pop them your mouth, and see what you think. If it’s good, go with it. If it’s not, search elsewhere. That, in a nutshell, is how you build your own ideas into culinary reality.
We used a rack of spare ribs, but you can do any cut of rib you like, (Baby Back, St. Louis, Rib Tips, County Style, or beef ribs.)
Preheat oven to 250° F and set a rack in the middle slot.
Season ribs with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, (we use our go to seasoning salt for pretty much everything).
Wrap the ribs tightly in aluminum foil, fat side up and dull side of the foil facing out.
Set the package on a baking sheet, or the bottom of a broiler pan, and cook low and slow for about 2 hours, until the rib meat is very tender.
Juice from one fat and happy blood orange.
1/4 Cup Orange Marmalade
1/3 Cup chopped fresh Fennel bulb
2 small cloves Garlic
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco chile flake, (Use any chile variety you like here)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot.
Remove ribs from oven, set a rack on a high slot, and increase temperature to 375° F.
In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt butter, then add fennel and sauté for a couple minutes until it has notably softened.
Add garlic and sauté another minute until raw garlic smell dissipates.
Reduce heat to medium low.
Add orange juice, marmalade, and chile flake, stir well to incorporate.
Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes, until the sauce is quite liquid, (that’d be the marmalade relaxing a bit.)
Add half the arrow root and stir to incorporate. Allow the sauce to cook for another minute or so. Sauce will thicken slightly – Add the rest of the arrow root if you want things a bit thicker.
Unwrap the ribs, and flip them meat side up onto the pan. Baste or pour sauce liberally onto the ribs in an even layer.
Return the ribs to the oven on the high rack, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and starting to caramelize.
We served ours with an gratin potatoes, a lovely green salad, and fresh, crusty bread. They were falling off the bone tender, and the sauce was a perfect foil to the richness of the meat.
I tweak and republish this post annually; I think you’ll see why when you read it.
See, I’m not out to be tragically hip, in fact quite the contrary. Or maybe Matthew Selman said it best; “I wish there was another word than foodie; how about ‘super food asshole’, or ‘pretentious food jerk’?” I just don’t wanna go there.
Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but right now, many are judged ‘Great’ because somebody took a really, really nice pic of some food, or is on the fast track to be the next Food Channel Super Food Asshole. Frankly, when the ‘best’ food blog sites reject people because they don’t meet criterion such as that, I’m more than not interested, I’m actively turned off.
I write about food from some pretty simple perspectives. 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 not very good. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well. To be honest, if no one read this blog, I’d write it anyway, because I do it for me first and foremost; I gotta share what I love. That’s just how I’m wired.
So, when I look at ‘real’ food blogs, I see the stuff that, fairly often, folks ask me about here, or more to the point, ask me why I don’t do these things. There are three oft repeated comments, and they are,
Why don’t you list nutritionals and calories,
Why don’t you post prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?
So, 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 any idea about that. If I list a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and on and on. This ain’t a restaurant, and I’d bet your house isn’t either; neither of us needs everyone to eat the same portion. For the record, I predominantly do recipes for two, with planned leftovers, the idea being general efficiency, and the fact that anything good will be great the next day. Other than that, you’re kinda on your own. I mean I can give you a great biscuit recipe, but how big you make ’em, and how many y’all wolf down is kinda your gig, right?
Don’t get me wrong, nutrition IS important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to this is to buy carefully and thoughtfully. Buy locally whenever you can. Read the labels on food and avoid the stuff that’s truly bad for you. 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, at home. 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 we go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just click on our link for Calorie Count and go to town. There’s a mobile version out for your Apple or Android smart phone as well now.
Next comes prep and cooking time.
Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely close to 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 level, 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 can stem, seed and core a tomato blindfolded, without cutting myself, in about 15 seconds; can 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? If I can prep Dish A in 10 minutes and you take 20, should you not make that dish? Of course not! And really, 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 – Who gives 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.
Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a whacky spice cabinet. 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 dedicated lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much stuff is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? If you’re asking me, I think the question is rhetorical. And frankly, 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. I recently shared a bacon recipe with a pal from South Africa. He ended up having to go all over creation to find several ingredients, but he did it, ’cause he really wants to try my recipe. Kinda like that last discussion on prep and cooking, huh? Ive mailed corn meal to Australia and mustard seed to Israel; if you can’t get something you wanna try, hit me up, I’ll help. I’ve also gotta point out that we constantly encourage and desire experimentation, so if you’re making it, put what you like in it: Give us credit the first time, and then it’s yours…
I say that if you love cooking and great food, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir; who knows what you’ll do with them?
We do this because 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. If that ain’t good enough, so be it.
There are tens of thousands of threads, posts, and pages out there describing exactly what you absolutely, positively must have in your kitchen – And no two agree completely. That might be a good or a bad thing, depending on ones desires, budget, and available space. Arguably, the lions share of such information deals with cookware, and I’m ready to boldly wade in. What you absolutely need is cast iron, and if you had to pick one piece over all others, it should be the Dutch oven – It’s must have kitchenware.
First off, what exactly is a ‘genuine’ Dutch oven? The answer is, there are several, and most of them aren’t Dutch any more. In essence, it’s a flat bottomed, fairly deep, (typically 3″ to 5″), thick walled, (read, heavy), pot with a nice, snug lid. Past that, it’s called many things – Whether it’s a Dutch Braadpan, Aussie Bedourie, South African Potjie, an Eastern European Chugun, or a North American Dutch Oven, they’re pretty much the same thing and used similarly – that means that everything from stewing and roasting to baking and boiling gets done in this one marvelous pot.
There are dozens of folks tales about how the Dutch oven got its name, but here’s the straight skinny – Back in the 1600s, the Dutch refined the process of casting metal cooking pots by employing a dry sand mold, which yielded a notably smoother finished surface than what they’re neighbor’s were producing – That made using and cleaning them much easier, and once the rest of Europe got a taste, serious importation of the pot began and grew. In the dawn of the 18th century, Englishman Abraham Darby refined the casting process further by fueling a blast furnace with coke rather than charcoal, opening the way for cast iron cooking vessels. In a nod to the folks he learned the sand mold trick from, he called the pot he cast, (similar to a braadpan), a Dutch oven, and the rest is history. At his Cheese Lane Foundry, an apprentice named John Thomas further refined the molding process, employing a casting box and core that allowed relatively thinner and lighter pots to be produced. They were so successful that Darby enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the trade well into the 1700s – It was his wares that first made their way to North American shores.
So, what are they made of? While plain cast iron rules in North America, those Dutch braadpans are much more likely to be enameled steel. There are cast aluminum versions, and the legendary Le Creuset enameled cast iron French Oven has legions of fans – And for the record, technically, an enameled Dutch oven is a French Oven – It’s a formal nod to that famous company that first produced the combination.
Once the Dutch oven hit our shores, changes were inevitable. Shallower, wider pots prevailed over their English forebearers. Stubby legs appeared, to allow coals to be placed beneath the oven, and a flat, flanged lid followed, so that coals placed on top of the oven stayed there, and out of the food. Both those innovations are widely attributed to Paul Revere, who did indeed own a foundry, and who’s name graces a line of cookware to this very day, but beyond everybody saying he did it, I couldn’t find one solid confirmation of the legend. Bailed handles, lids with handles, and various other iterations followed, and remain available to this day. Check out the website for the ubiquitous Lodge foundry, and you get the picture. Dutch ovens were almost exclusively made of cast iron here, and were considered so valuable a commodity that they were religiously passed on from generation to generation, often to a specific recipient. As the country grew, Dutch ovens traveled, starting with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and they’re very much still with us.
So, with all that history and all those options, you don’t have one in your kitchen? Or worse yet, you do, it it’s gathering dust, unused? Time to remedy that. If you don’t have one, I’m gonna say again, you need to invest in one, and in investment is literally what you’re making – Just as it was back when, a good quality Dutch oven, properly maintained, will serve you for a lifetime, and then be ready to be handed on to future generations. If you’ve got one and aren’t using it, time to get it down, inspect it, clean it, and put that puppy to use.
Now, if you’re buying, what should you get? That depends on what your predominant use will be, and how many people you typically feed. The first decision is new or used – Either is fine, but don’t expect to readily find a killer cheap deal on first class vintage cast iron – Those days are largely gone, although if you’re not in a hurry, and diligent about searching garage and estate sales, eBay, and Craig’s List, you can still find a decent bargain now and again.
If you’re going to buy, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than Lodge – There’s a reason they sell more cast iron than anybody else – They’ve been doing it since 1896, and their products, service, and designs are tried, tested, and top notch, (There are other fine makers, so poke around before you land.) If you’re cooking for 2 to 4 folks, a 10″ oven will do just fine. More than that, and you’re going to be better off with a 12″ pot. If your primary use will be your home kitchen, with an occasional foray to the camping world, you’ll be well served by a Lodge L8DD3, a 10″ 5 quart, double Dutch oven with a domed, handled cover that doubles as a skillet at the campsite. Between the 4.5″ depth and the domed lid, you can get a lot of stuff into this oven – I know, ’cause this is the one we own and use here, and the one I got for my Sis, so yeah, I think that highly of ’em – And if you’re a regular visitor here, you know that’s no bullshit, because you’ve seen this very model working here many, many times. One caveat – The L8DD3 doesn’t have legs or a baled handle, so you need to be a bit more careful around a campfire, but I assure you there’s not much you can’t do with it out in the wild – and speaking thereof…
If you’re looking for an oven specifically to camp with, then you’ll do better with a Lodge L10DCO3, what they call a camp oven – This guy features everything you want in an oven that’ll get used predominantly with coals – Legs, bale handle, and that possibly Revere designed flat, flanged lid. Those attributes are important because, when cooking over coals or wood, you need to be able to effectively distribute heat in different ways, depending on what you need the oven to do. A few years back, I wrote a piece about camp cooking with a Dutch oven, and you’ll find that right here – It’ll provide plenty of specific info on how to vary the number and placement of coals or briquettes to achieve effective baking, roasting, or simmering when you’re out at the campsite.
And as for that versatility I mentioned a while back, suffice it to say that there’s truly not much you can’t do with this oven. From soups and stews, to braising and roasting, sautéing or baking, a cast iron Dutch oven will provide dependable, even heat and consistent performance. And then there’s the certain je ne sais quoi imparted by cooking in cast iron – Everything tastes a little better, at least to me it does, and frankly, I can’t think of a better reason to use one, (and not a single reason you wouldn’t.)
As with all good cookware, cast iron requires care and maintenance. Rather than repeat the mantras, I’ll just point you to Lodge’s page for seasoning, and for care and maintenance – Do what they tell ya, don’t do the stuff you shouldn’t, and that oven will serve you and yours for decades to come.
NOTE: Because, without fail, somebody always gets in touch and asks how much, in this case, Lodge gave or paid me, rest assured – We don’t take freebies, and we don’t get paid by purveyors – We bought our stuff, just like you do, every time, no exceptions.
It happens in every professional kitchen, to some degree, every day – And folks, truth be told, it happens exactly the same way in our home kitchens, too. Classically, it’s known as being dans le merde – You might not know the term, but I guarantee you know the feeling. You’re in the shit.
Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen knows the term. My first professional kitchen training was French, then a Basque kitchen, then another French outfit. ‘On est dans la merde,’ was a thing I heard early on, and quickly came to understand – If you want the proper pronunciation, it’s onnay don la maird – It means, we are in the shit, and in it deep. It’s a colorful phrase, indeed. The Americanized version is ‘in the weeds’, but it means the same thing, and it’s rarely good – I’ll explain my choice of rarely over never down the line a spell.
What in the shit or the weeds means is simple – It’s the Murphy’s Law of cooking – What can go wrong, will go wrong, and usually at the most inopportune moment. It makes sense, frankly. While some advocate that the phenomenon is more prevalent and has greater negative repercussions in a fine dining outfit, I personally think that’s hooey. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to a fast food chain when they’re in the weeds, and frankly, I have zero doubt that staff and patrons there feel it every bit as acutely as they would at The French Laundry. It sucks, bad, and sometimes it can be damn near impossible to get out of quickly or cleanly. Yet most of the time, that’s not true, thank the gods.
Before we explore the what, a moment to discuss the term – Where does in the shit/weeds come from – The etymology isn’t crystal clear. Some posit that it stems from a sports analogy, hitting a golf ball into the rough, or getting tangled in seaweed during a swim. Mark Liberman, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale, suggests it refers to getting off the beaten path, and that strikes me as closer to the mark, (no pun intended). It’s hard to say how old this chunk of kitchen lexicon is. A search for the origins or first use of the term as kitchen slang yields almost nothing of value, it’s an arcane term that apparently hasn’t been explored well. My earliest finding for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. The inference therein is that the term was common among kitchen staff then, so it likely has its roots back a spell from Orwell’s time.
What being dans le merde means is, overwhelmed. In a restaurant, it means that something has swamped a station or stations, and they can’t keep up. When everything, literally everything, must be precisely timed and finely coordinated, that’s all it takes to bring about disaster. And if the orders keep piling up after it’s happened, it’ll take that much longer to get out of.
What I do nowadays in the cafe during peak periods is expedite – I’m standing on the front of house side of the pass, the high counter where completed plates are placed by the kitchen staff when they’re ready to go. I give everything one more check, confirm each element of the plate with my QC, and then hand the plate on to a server. But in reality, I’m watching the clock, and all the stations. My QC, (literally Quality Control – The most important person in that kitchen), the one who has final say on what comes out to me, has control of her line, but her back is to it most of the time, whereas I’m facing the various stations – She can feel what’s shaking, because she’s really good, but I can see it – The expressions on faces, the sudden slow down in assembly steps as somebody gets bogged down, the lack of plates at a given station, where there should be several. As such, a great deal of what I actually do is orchestrate things to keep us from being dans le merde. It’s a constant, demanding dance, and I love it.
Now we reach the point of asking, so what? Why would we be interested in exploring a term that describes catastrophic failure? The answer, my friends, is simple – Search your hearts and memories, and you’ll find plenty of examples of this happening to you, in your own kitchen. Sure, we’re not Le Bernardin, but the fact is that, on a Tuesday night, after a long, hard day at work, when you’ve got to have dinner on the table for your family in X minutes, and the shit hits the fan, it matters a great deal. It has happened, and as sure as hitting a deer while driving eastern Washington, it will happen again, and therein lies the crux of the matter – When it does, what will you do? The sitcom and cartoon answer is, order pizza, and sometimes that works, but the fact remains that most of the time that’s not an option, so, just as I do at work, we at home must act to save the day.
Craig Thornton is the wildly creative LA Chef and founder of Wolvesmouth, what he describes as, “a communal dinner party, kind of like the old-world salon.” A dinner party that just happens to be one of the most sought after dinner reservations in that town. In an interview a while back, he said something that speaks perfectly to why understanding and studying being dans le merde is important – “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.” Truer words were never spoken. No matter how accomplished you are, no matter how broad your repertoire, Murphy says that things will go wrong when you can least afford it. Made Yorkshire pudding a thousand times? You’ll fuck it up on Christmas Eve, with the whole fam damily in attendance. Think about it – Cooking is chemistry, math, history, memory, ambition, imagination, all done with a cornucopia of methods and processes almost guaranteed to make all that fail at some point. It’s a given, and as such, we need to recognize and acknowledge failure – Bow to the gods of chaos, and then smile back at ’em. Failure is, quite literally, a vital part of the cooking process. As with most things in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it when things don’t exactly go swimmingly that tests our mettle.
So, what’s the take away, S’il vous plaît? The answer depends on the disaster. Fortunately, this being the 21st century, answers are but a click away, if you don’t already know one. When a disaster hits your kitchen, it’s time to go into triage mode. Whatever the crisis, when it happens, you need to do what we do at work. Stop for a moment. When you’re in the shit, it feels like you’ve just got to forge on, a la the Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Fact is, that’s usually not a good idea when everything is going to shit.
Disaster requires a moment of observation first and foremost – What went wrong? We may or may not be able to answer that question, but you need to take the time to observe and assess. Thats literally what I do at work – “Gang, stop – Let’s figure this out – Do we need to move people around, do we need more hands, what’s the deal? Let’s figure it out and fix it.” That’s why up there in that second paragraph I said being dans le merde isn’t always bad – If you’re barreling down the wrong path and something critical brings you to a full stop, it can be a hidden blessing – You only ruin one dish, instead of a whole meal.
Take stock of what happened – If you’re not sure what it was, grab your smart phone and google that sucker, ‘why did my Sauce separate?’ With all the resources out there, you’ll likely not only find the cause, but a wealth of possible solutions as well. For the time being, screw the sauce – What’s done is done, and a minute or two more isn’t going to do a bunch more damage. Here’s another tip – Ask for help at home. If you’re a solo cook, (as most of us at are), you’re probably not big on helpers, (I’m not, as many well know). That tendency is, in fact, the cause of many disasters – you’ve taken on a big ass menu of stuff that’s new to you for a party, and wham, things go to shit – Ask for help – Chances are good there’s a spouse, kid, hell even a neighbor you can call on in a pinch. That extra set of hands, eyes, and heart may be exactly what’s called for.
Finally, accept the circumstances. Soufflé pan cracked mid bake? May be salvageable, may not – If not, what’s your alternative? Perfect scrambled eggs are a thing of beauty – No, they’re not a soufflé, but after that disaster, who would argue with great comfort food? Burned the butter in the sauté pan? Don’t wipe it out and charge forward. Stop, get a new pan, take a sip of wine while it heats up. Take a deep breath, get rid of whatever distraction that drew your attention from where it should have been, and calmly go forth to culinary success.
If nothing else, I’ll guarantee you this – Screw something up in an epic kitchen fail, and it’s a safe bet you’ll never, ever do that again. Count your hidden blessings.
If you’re in the mood for a food read, pick up a copy of Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice. It’s a delightful read, portraying some of the last days of old school French cooking via the apprenticeship method. There are some wonderful recipes as well.
Secondly, definitely check out Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character. It’s a fascinating look at what Jacobsen calls The Sexond Age of Apples, the recovery and resurgence of heirloom, regional varieties across the country and the world. And frankly anything else by Rowan is worth your time and money, especially American Terrior if you’ve not already read it.