What does bay leaf do for our cooking, anyway?

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

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

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

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

Sweet bay laurel tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Sweet Bay leaves
Fresh Sweet Bay leaves

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

Grow your own bay leaves

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

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. After thanksgiving, there must be turkey soup with home made stock, and that begs for accompaniment by something delightful – like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.

Cranberry Citrus Granita

Granitas are a lovely, light alternative to ice cream or sherbet that contain no dairy at all and are super simple to make; if you’ve never tried one, it’s time. This version highlights the tart sweetness of cranberries and citrus and is, quite frankly, stunningly pretty.

We’re highlighting cranberries ’cause we typically just haul them out for the holidays, but that’s not right, (but go ahead and do so now, OK?) Cranberries are incredibly tasty, make gorgeous food, and are darn good for you as well. They’re not only rich in Vitamin C, but have excellent infection fighting properties as well, as anyone who’s had a urinary tract infection knows. Cranberries contain compounds known as condensed tannins, which are potent antioxidants with known anti-inflammatory properties. Cooking does not degrade tannins, so here’s a delicious little fruit that’s remarkably healthy even when we do stuff to ’em. Here’s how you granita.

1 Cup Water
3-4 fresh Navel Oranges
1 each fresh Lemon and Lime
1 1/2 Cups Cranberries, fresh or frozen, washed and sorted
1/2 Cup Agave Nectar or Honey

Thoroughly rinse cranberries and citrus. If your citrus has been waxed or treated, put them whole in a bowl containing ¼ cup white vinegar mixed with 4 cups cold water. Allow them to soak for about 15 minutes, then rinse in fresh water and dry with a clean towel.

Zest all citrus, then juice each into separate small bowls or cups.

In a heavy bottomed sauce pan over medium-high heat, add;
The water,
Cranberries,
1 cup of orange juice,
1 teaspoon lime juice,
1 teaspoon lemon juice,
The agave nectar or honey,
1/2 teaspoon of orange, lemon and lime zest.

Heat to a fast simmer, stirring occasionally, until the berries start to pop, (about 5 minutes).

Remove pan from heat and purée the ingredients with a stick blender; be careful, the blend holds heat well and is sticky.

Carefully pour the mixture through a steel mesh strainer, into a glass baking pan, (around 9″ x 12″ is right, and a half cookie sheet with sides will work if you don’t have the pan).

Press gently on the mix with a spatula; you’ll end up with some skins and zest that won’t make it through the strainer.

Slide the pan into your freezer for at least 4 hours, (and overnight is fine), along with 4 margarita or Marie Antoinette champagne glasses. Freeze until the granita is completely set.

Scrape the granita carefully towards with a fork while holding the pan steady, until you’ve got a nice shaved ice consistency.

 

Scoop granita into the chilled glasses, garnish with a Rosemary sprig, and serve immediately.

Et voilà!

 

Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous

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

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

Carne asada de UrbanMonique
Carne asada de UrbanMonique

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas
Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tacos Carne Asada
Tacos Carne Asada

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

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

First, the classic Mojo roots.


Canarian Green Mojo

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

Rinse and dry all produce.

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

Peel and stem garlic, and mince.

Juice lime, and set aside.

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

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

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

 

Canarian Red Mojo

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

Rinse all produce and pat dry.

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

Fine dice Pepper and chiles.

Mince Garlic.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Rinse and pat dry all produce.

Zest and juice the citrus, and reserve both.

Peel, stem, and mince the garlic.

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

Remove long stems from Cilantro and mince the remainder.

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

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

 

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

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

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

Zest and juice lime, set both aside.

Peel, stem and mince garlic

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

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

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

 

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

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

Rinse and pat dry produce.

Zest and juice Limes, set both aside.

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

Peel and stem Garlic, then mince.

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

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

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

 

Garlic Papaya Mojo

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

Peel, seed and rough chop papaya.

Zest and juice Limes.

Stem, seed and devein green pepper, then dice.

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

Peel, stem, and mince garlic.

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

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

Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov?

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

Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov
Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

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

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

Trimmed fat and connective tissue
Trimmed fat and connective tissue

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

Rendering fat from beef trimmings
Rendering fat from beef trimmings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer onions and stock to a mixing bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique
Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

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

Na Zdorovie!

Spaghetti Sauce a la Urban

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

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

8 Ounces Fresh Angel Hair Pasta

2 20 oz cans Whole Tomatoes

1/2 Pound Ground Pork

1/2 Pound Angus Beef

1 Cup Black Olives

1/2 Sweet Onion

1/2 Sweet Pepper

1 Stalk Celery

1 small Lemon

1/2 small Lime

3-4 Cloves Garlic

2-3 Sprigs Parsley

1/2 – 1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 – 1 teaspoon Savory

1/2 teaspoon Marjoram

2 whole Bay Leaves

1 Cup Red Wine

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Dry Sherry

Sea Salt

Black Pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Slow Cookers

The slow food movement took hold in Italy, back in 1989, and it’s been chugging along ever since. The initial focus was, “food that’s good for us, good for our environment and good for the people who grow, pick and prepare it. In other words, food that is good, clean and fair,” all inarguably good stuff. The movement has branched out somewhat in the intervening twenty seven years, and as such, it was inevitable that cookware would also become a part of the deal, and indeed it has – In recent years, what we cook in and how we cook it has garnered every bit as much attention as the food itself.

In the late ’90’s, cookware began one of its greatest evolutions to date. Home cooks found themselves able to buy stuff far superior to the schlock that had ruled the roost previously. One of the very early deal makers in this regard was All Clad‘s Emerilware, a full 11 piece set of which M and It bought in 2002 for less than what a single top of the line All Clad stock pot was going for. Why so cheap? Well, made in China rather than the U.S., frankly, and some minor metallurgical tweaks. That said, they’re still multi-layer steel, aluminum and copper bottoms bonded to stainless bodies – Fourteen years later, they show obvious signs of heavy use, but they’re in perfect working order with years left on them.

Then, as the slow food movement penetrated other parts of the world, this trend toward high-end cookware took an interesting turn as well – a one hundred and eighty degree U turn, to be exact. Suddenly, cast iron was back in vogue, both raw, from venerable makers like Lodge, (who’ve been casting cookware since 1896), and in the considerably pricier enameled iteration, and the most famous version thereof, made by French manufacturer Le Creuset – They’ve been around since 1925, and are still going strong. The fact is, you can’t go wrong with cast iron – The only crime you can commit in this regard is to not have any in your kitchen. For my mind, a cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven are not optional, and that’s sage advice, if I do say so myself.

Straw Box - The original slow cooker.
Straw Box – The original slow cooker.

Then the venerable crock pot got a make over, and the electric slow cooker caught fire as well. While the name brand crock pot is a child of the 1970s, the roots of the cooking method go back way further yet, to what was, and is still called a straw box. As you can see from the picture, this is nothing more than some form of box big enough to fit a slow cooker like a Dutch oven, with room enough to allow a nice, thick layer of straw to be piled all around the cooker. Foods heated in the Dutch oven are stuffed into the straw box and left alone for the day – The latent heat of the food in the well insulated box finishes the cooking in a nice, slow manner – Its great for cassoulets and such.

The Römertopf - Almost too pretty to cook in.
The Römertopf – Almost too pretty to cook in.

And lately, the clay cooker has made a resurgence as well, with venerable makers like Römertopf from Germany offering a wide range of fired clay cookware that’s not only fun to use, but quite lovely, (When I climbed aboard the clay cooker train for the writing of this piece, M noted that “it’s too pretty to cook in,” and it darn near is!) Cooking in clay might just signify the farthest back that we can practically go in pursuit of the good old days – It’s been done for thousands of years, and by cultures from literally all around the globe.

Thus we come to the Big Question at hand – How much, if any of this stuff do you actually need?

Let me answer that with a story. A friend of mine used to own a music store. I was there one day buying an amplifier, and he mentioned that he had some really nice Fender Stratocasters that I, “needed to take a look at.”
As we admired the guitars, I noted, “Well, they’re pretty, but I already got two Strats and a Tele – I don’t really need another one.” He looked at me as if I was the dumbest human he’d ever layer eyes on, sneered slightly and retorted, “What the hell does ‘need’ have to do with another Strat?!” And there you have it, in a nutshell.

How many knives do you really need? Two or three really will do. How many pots and pans? Well, that’s more complicated, and it depends on how much cooking you do and want to do – Realistically, I think anything less than a couple of sauce pans, a couple of sauté pans, and at least one big stock pot just won’t cut the mustard. How many and what kind of slow cooker you need is also complicated. If you have a good, cast iron Dutch oven, truth be told you probably don’t need anything else, but you may want more, and rightly so.

That single Dutch oven is versatile as all get out. From stove top, to oven, to camp fire, it can and will do it all, and a good quality oven will be something that you pass on to your kids and their kids after them – There’s much to be said for those qualities, and that’s why I’ll stand by the assertion above – If you only have one, I’d choose a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven and be most content, indeed.

What then, about enameled cast iron versus plain? My answer will be blasphemous to some, but I’ll stick by it – I’ve owned more than one piece of Le Creuset, and two Lodge Dutch ovens. I don’t own any Le Creuset currently, because all of the pieces we have went through the process of enamel chipping from the bottom, and were eventually retired – With regret, I’ll add, because Le Creuset is beautiful stuff. Now, let me interject that, were you to buy Le Creuset stuff new, you’ll find that it comes with a limited lifetime warranty, and while there are caveats and requirements, I know more than a few folks who have either gotten a brand new replacement for free, or a significant discount on same – In other words, Le Creuset not only makes a kick ass pot, they’re still a most honorable company.

Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips...
Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips…

That said, the enamel is pretty, and will cut down on some preventive maintenance on your part, but you’ll pay for those premiums – Le Creuset is fabulously expensive, just like those top end All Clad stock pots – A lodge Dutch oven like ours will set you back around $40, and their enameled version will run you about $60 – That same size of Le Creuset costs $300 – Get the picture? Me, I’m OK with the maintenance – It’s why I have my knives made with high carbon blades instead of stainless – It’s about feel, and performance, and frankly, I’m OK with maintaining my stuff – That’s how I know how it’s doing in general. Oh, and for the record, I still own my Lodge Dutch oven, and the second one was gifted to my Sis, who was without and therefore in need.

And electric slow cookers, what about ’em? Well, the need factor is kinda like those Strats… Slow cookers are handy as all get out, and they’ve come a long way. Programmability, multiple cooking temps and profiles, and much higher quality cooking vessels and insulating materials have made these toys, errr – tools, a very attractive option. If you’re of a mind to make a soup or stew, cassoulet or roast, and want it to go all day low and slow, you’ll spend less energy doing so, and likely be much safer in using a slow cooker, as opposed to leaving an unattended oven or range in all day. Our Frigidaire Professional series 7 quart cooker cost about $60, and I highly recommend it.

The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker
The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker

And what about those clay cookers? While most of the world has been cooking in clay for millennia, many people in this country got their introduction back in the ’70s, when a British firm called Habitat introduced The Chicken Brick to America. On sale in Britain since 1964, the brick is a vaguely chicken shaped, unglazed terra-cotta cooker made in England by Weston Mills Pottery. The brick worked, and worked well, but it was kinda gimmicky, so a lot of folks got one as a wedding or Christmas gift, and then never actually used the silly thing. All that aside, the recent resurgence in interest regarding cooking in clay has spurred a revival – While Habitat discontinued sales of the Chicken Brick back in 2008, they’ve recently come to their senses and are again offering this iconic cooker.

The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta
The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta

While the brick as made of unglazed terra-cotta, the stuff offered by Römertopf and a few other German makers is glazed clay. In either iteration, there are some things you must and must not do when cooking in these vessels, and that frankly is what caused a whole bunch of folks to never even try to use that wedding gift. Clay cookers cook in large part by steam heat, and that means you need to soak the whole cooker in water for 15 to 20 minutes before you load food into it.

Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.
Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.

Next, it’s best not to load cold foods into a clay cooker, so you’ll also have to get your bird or roast or whatever out of the fridge for long enough to allow it to get fairly close to room temperature. And clay cookers don’t do well in preheated ovens – That can lead to cracks, and cracks are bad – So you need to load that bird into that cooker and into a cold oven. This means that you actually will cook at a higher temperature than you normally roast at – With our Römertopf, we cook chicken at 450° F for about an hour, whereas regular roasting gets done at 350° F or thereabouts. Next caveat – You can’t take a clay cookers out of a hot oven and set it directly on a cold countertop – Doing so risks cracks, and again, they’re bad… Finally, you can’t clean a clay cookers with soap, and for the same reasons, (its porous, yeah?), you don’t really want to cook fish in one unless you’re not going to cook anything but fish in thereafter, because it’s got a memory like an elephant.

The Römertopf cooker - Made from glazed clay
The Römertopf cooker – Made from glazed clay

Right about now, a fair chunk of you are thinking, “OK, Eben – What you’ve just done is convinced me that this clay cookers thing is a major pain in the ass, so why in hell would I put myself through all that just to cook a damn chicken?!

The answer is that the chicken you cook in that pain in the ass clay cooker will be the juiciest, tenderest, moistest chicken you’ve ever cooked. M said so, the very first time I used the Römertopf, and she was right. A clay cooker becomes a small, very efficient, very moist cooking environment, and without any other adjuncts whatsoever, it passes that moisture on to what you’re cooking. Römertopf makes cookers from quite small to large enough for a full sized turkey – we bought a medium size, which has a stated size of slightly over 3 quarts, and cost fifty bucks – Not cheap, but as you can see, this is a well made and truly beautiful thing – Almost too pretty to cook in, as M noted. What it fits is pretty much the fattest local chicken you can find, but not much else – I quickly found that our cooker truly wouldn’t hold anything else, which initially made me nervous, because I come from the mire poix in the bottom of a Dutch oven with some chicken stock school of roasting. What I found out is exactly what all the makers of clay cookers tell you – You don’t need anything in that cooker to make an incredible, notable chicken – The cooker will do the magic – And indeed, it does. I stuffed that bird with apple, fennel, onion, and some fresh herbs. Cooked it at 450° F for an hour, then popped the top off for about 10 minutes to let the bird brown. Pulled it out, put it in a towel on the counter top, gave it a 10 minute rest, and dug in.

Clay cooked chicken - 'nuff said.
Clay cooked chicken – ’nuff said.

It was, as noted, an incredible chicken, but let’s face it – I bought this cooker to write this post, and as good as that chicken was, it could have been a fluke, so I did the scientific thing – I bought another chicken a week later, did all the proper prep, but this time, I did nothing other than to throw that bird into the Römertopf with a tiny bit of olive oil rubbed on the skin, followed by our signature seasoned salt blend and fresh ground pepper – Didn’t stuff it, didn’t tie it, nothin’ – Just cooked the bugger, and…

Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!
Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!

It was the best damn chicken I ever made, hands down, bar none, no bullshit.

So, now – What do you need?

PLEASE NOTE!

Have now had quite a few of you ask if I was biased/bought for the purposes of this piece. Those who’ve asked are quite new here, so it’s a fair question. Here’s our answer –

We have never accepted any ingredient or article for free or any kind of reduced price in exchange for a favorable review, and we never will.

We have far more than enough followers and readers to warrant the ability to run ads on this blog, and to receive deals such as I just described – Again, we’ve never done any of that, and never will.

This is a completely independent blog, and everything you see here is bought by us at full retail price from the same places you can get yours. We’re about helping folks discover new things, becoming more food independent, and making from scratch everything that you can, period.

Status Report

as prolific as I try to be, I must of course have a real job in order to pay the bills. I’ve just made a major shift out of restaurant management, into an Area Manager position with Schwan’s, here in my home town.

This move will cancel too many years of 2-3 hour daily commutes to and from work, as well as blessing me with a Monday through Friday work week. I couldn’t be happier about those changes, frankly.

I’ve got to learn a whole lot in a relatively short time period, so during the transition, new posts will be few and far between. Fortunately, there’s something like fifteen years of good stuff here to revisit and revise. I’ll be leaning on those archives while I get up to speed.

That said, what I post may well still be new to you, so stay tuned! By the same token, please do poke around and see what’s here. I’ll be back on track with weekly new posts just as soon as I can.

if there’s something you want and can’t find, or if you’ve got a specific request, drop me an email or message, and I’ll go to work for you.

Thank You for being here, it’s deeply appreciated!

I love Hawaiian pizza – and maybe you should too

Back in June, 2017, Sotirios ‘Sam’ Panopoulos passed away in London, Ontario, Canada. While you’ve likely never heard of Sam, you know him well through his iconic dish, the Hawaiian Pizza – That creation, loved or reviled, came from the mind of a 28 year old Greek immigrant to Canada. I’m here to declare, formally, that I love Hawaiian pizza – and maybe you should too.

Sam Panopoulos, The Man
Sam Panopoulos, The Man

Sam and a couple of brothers owned the Satellite restaurant in Chatham, Ontario, due east across Lake Saint Clair from Detroit. It was the early 60’s, so a place called the Satellite was very fashion forward, indeed. They served a mishmash of stuff, from burgers to Chinese food made by a Chinese chef. He later noted that it was the Chinese penchant for blending elements of the five major tastes in a dish that got him thinking about inventing a pizza – He’d enjoyed eating that in Italy and the US, and thought he might be able to come up with something original. He was right.

Truth? A lot of chain Hawaiian pizza sucks.
Truth? A lot of chain Hawaiian pizza sucks.

Today’s version of the Hawaiian pizza is not what Sam started with. His shining contribution was the pineapple – Canned Dole pineapple, which begat the Hawaiian thing. He later recalled that, in Canada at that time, “People only put on mushroom, bacon and pepperoni, that’s all. I had pineapple in the restaurant and I put some on, and I shared with some customers and they liked it. And we started serving it that way. For a long time, we were the only ones serving it.”

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Get the mix right, and things can be delightful. What Sam had done was add a tacitly sweet note to what was, as he noted, a pretty heavy mix. Yet pineapple did more than that – It added acid, which cut the fatty mix of cheese and meat, and offered a minor sour note as well. It may seem wrong, but I think it was brilliant, and the explosion of that now legendary combo on the world of pizza would seem to support that.

Now, the Hawaiian is almost always tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, and pineapple. It is surprising to me that seemingly equal faction either love the combination or loath it. The President of Iceland recently denounced it, (albeit tongue in cheek), prompting Canadian PM Trudeau to quip, “I have a pineapple. I have a pizza. And I stand behind this delicious Southwestern Ontario creation.” Many chefs have vilified the thing, from Gordon Ramsay To Tony Bourdain, sometimes prompting outraged defenses in response from yet other chefs. Somewhere in print, the haters actually invoked Godwin’s Law, and declared that those who like Hawaiian pizza are ‘worse than hitler.’

What is it about pineapple on pizza that’s so polarizing? Purists cite Neapolitan roots and flatly state that pineapple has no place there – I imagine these folks have kittens over quite a few other ingredients as well. Sweet notes in a pizza certainly aren’t taboo – Hell, that’s what tomatoes do, for cryin’ out loud – and pineapple has been eaten in Italy for a long, long time. In the states, it’s a top ten fruit, so it’s not broadly disliked here either. Google the first sentence of this paragraph and you get a whole raft of discussions and levels of intensity – It’s interesting, but all that stuff doesn’t necessarily answer the question.

The whole thing really seems to boil down to two arguments – either that pineapple just doesn’t belong on pizza, or that it just doesn’t taste good – To both, I call bullshit. If you like pineapple, and want to use it, do so. If you’re running a pizzeria that swears eternal fealty to all the arcane rules of the game, then by all means, don’t. If you don’t like the taste, no matter what, then don’t eat it – it’s that simple. But if you’re cooking at home, and you want to, then to paraphrase Alton Brown, by God, have pineapple. 

As for the taste thing, fact is, this is often enough true. A poorly made pizza isn’t likely to taste good at all – but that’s easily remedied. Let’s face it, a notable chunk of commercial pizza from big name chains and the stuff at the grocery store is crap – They’re not generally made with love and care, and you get what you pay for. Change that, and it’s delicious.

Great Hawaiian pizza is all about balance of flavors
Great Hawaiian pizza is all about balance of flavors

Tony Bourdain infamously had nothing good to say about Hawaiian pizza, (most of it highly profane, I might add). Yet he was forced to swallow his smartass comments when, in Rome, he ran into Gabriele Bonci of Pizzarium. Chef Bonci does pizza right – great dough, top notch ingredients, just a few things combined on each slice. Bourdain made the Hawaiian crack, and Bonci immediately said ‘No, is good,’ and made some. They both agreed it was good, but not great. Then Bonci disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a sauté of onion and hot peppers added, and bingo – Even Tony had to admit it rocked.

Homemade sauce makes the pizza
Homemade sauce makes the pizza

That harkens all the way back to what Sam Panopoulos said about first offering pineapple on pizza – It was added to whatever you liked. It’s all about balance, and what Sam gleaned from Chinese food was a well balanced thing. Love it or hate it, the fact that it flourishes decades after its inception says it’s true.

The secret to great Hawaiian pizza? Chiles!
The secret to great Hawaiian pizza? Chiles!

So, if you’re not from the hater camp, try it done right. Fresh pineapple is always best, but truth? Canned will work fine if you blend and cook it well. You don’t need to use fancy ham, but you sure can if you want, or sub bacon, or whatever porky deliciousness you prefer. Make or buy great dough, sauce, and use as much fresh stuff as you’ve got for toppings. What you see in the images herein was made with fresh dough, tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeños, and basil out of our garden, and locally made smoked scamorza cheese. Use different chiles if you like, red onion, maybe a few capers for a bitter note – experiment, have fun, and surrender to Sam.

Great homemade Hawaiian pizza
Great homemade Hawaiian pizza

One interesting side note – Sam died one year to the day before Bourdain took his own life in France.