Cucina Romana

I blame Tony Bourdain for lighting the memory fire, in a recent episode titled simply, Rome, and shot entirely in black and white to honor the work of Federico Fellini… As often happens watching No Reservations, M and I saw something prepared/served/enjoyed that made us look at each other for a moment, and then say, almost simultaneously, “Tomorrow night?” Yup…

Pasta Cacio e Pepe was the thing; pasta with cheese, butter and black pepper and not a damn thing more. If this doesn’t fly in the face of the common sentiment that making pasta dishes takes too long and is complicated, I don’t know what does. I do not remember specifically eating Cacio e Pepe when in Rome, but I do remember spaghetti Carbonara; add eggs and bacon to Cacio, and in fact, that’s what you’ve got, so maybe that was the memory nugget, eh? In any case, fall is coming and that signals a slow shift to the wonderful comfort foods of the cooler seasons, and what better way to start than this?

Note that our version used Parmesan instead of Pecorino Romano, which is probably blasphemous, but it’s what we had and we love it and, if nothing else, if affords us an opportunity to try it again down the line with the real cheese, right?

Our meal shaped up as follows; while prep and cooking were certainly a collaborative effort, the credit for this goes to Monica, who put everything together and had it ready to assemble and finish off when I got home from work.

Pasta Cacio e Pepe with homemade angel hair noodles,
served in a parmesan cheese bowl.
Haricots Verts
Fresh green salad
Peach crisp.

For the pasta, M combined 50% Semolina flour with 50% general purpose and eggs; this was our first run with genuine Italian Semolina flour, which we bought online from A. G. Ferrari. I have to say that this was a big reminder about the origin and quality of ingredients. Homemade pasta is great; homemade pasta with the best ingredients is as good as it gets anywhere… The pasta dough was phenomenal; it was the prettiest golden brown, it was a joy to handle, dried wonderfully, cooked well and tasted out of this world; how’s that for high praise?

M’s Homemade Angel Hair

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup Semolina flour
3 large eggs
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Pinch of Salt

Combine flour and salt in a large bowl; make a well in the middle of the flour and add eggs and oil. Incorporate eggs into flour mixture with a fork by gently turning the flour into the eggs. Work by hand until well kneaded and very elastic. Cover with a dry cloth and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Flatten out dough and cut into quarters to work into noodles.

We contemplated using the pasta attachment on our KitchenAid, but to be honest, we haven’t used it very much, so when we got out that, plus the required sausage maker, and started looking at pieces and instructions and… We looked at each other and M said, “Let’s do it by hand,” so out came our trusty Marcato Atlas and we were off to the races. This maker is the king as far as I am concerned; they are not cheap, so if you ever find a good working used one for under, say, $40, snap it up, (They go around $75 new).

M’s recipe serves 4, so we took the ‘leavin’s,’ (The short sections of noodles), and froze them for later use in soup or more pasta, or… We hung the cut pasta up to dry on a rack for about 20 minutes or so while we got ready to cook.

M grated a whole bunch of Parmigiano; for the bowls, she used a small sauté pan and glass ramekins for molds. She melted a layer of cheese in the pan on medium heat, and when it was nice and bubbly and starting to turn golden on the cooking side, she flipped them onto the molds and let them cool.

Pasta water was prepared with a little olive oil and plenty of Kosher salt, (Your pasta water should taste like it has salt in it, FYI; not knock your butt over sea water, but definitely present!).

For the Haricots Verts, M trimmed the ends as needed, then trimmed the fat from and diced bacon. She sautéed the bacon until almost done, then added diced shallot. She deglazed the sauté pan with a little red wine, added about ½ cup chicken stock and reduced the mixture by about 50% for plating.



Terminology digression:
What is deglazing and why would I do that? Excellent question, invisible Muse! Deglazing is done when foods are sautéed, fried, etc; what you’re doing is simply leaving the heat on, and then using a liquid to loosen up and incorporate all the little naughty bits the cooking process left behind. By getting all that stuff loosened up and in suspension with your deglazing liquid, you get all the wonderful depth and breadth of flavor you’d missed if you didn’t deglaze. In M’s example above, she used the red wine to pull all the bacon and shallot flavors off the pan she might have missed, then combined that with the chicken stock to get a really nice background flavor profile, then reduced it all to concentrate the flavor further. Deglazing is one of another easy little secret that makes a huge difference in taste, so DO IT! You can deglaze with wine, stock, vinegar, marinade, juice, what have you. Try a flavor you feel will be complimentary; experiment and develop your own favorites!

M did a nice green salad, and added fresh wedges of avocado, which was a super touch; the creamy cool of the avocado was amazing with the pasta!

For fruit crisps, M makes the crisp in bulk and freezes it; that way, when she finds some nice fruit, she just pulls some crisp out of the freezer, does it up and viola!


Fresh Fruit Crisp

Choose whatever you like and find in season! Apples, pears, berries, peaches, you name it! Add sugar to taste, cinnamon or nutmeg, maybe some chopped nuts as you see fit. For the crisp;

¾ Cup all purpose flour
¾ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup rolled oats
4 ounces of unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼” cubes
¼ teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients and mix by hand or with two knives until the butter is pea sized, about half the size of your original cubes. That’s it! Spread an even layer over your fruit mixture in ramekins or a fairly shallow baking dish.

Bake at 350 for about an hour, or until crisp is brown and, well, crispy!

A meal like this needs to be coordinated in preparation to come out just right; you can see we had several balls in the air at one time, so working as a team is not only a joy, it gets it done right. Fresh pasta is gonna wanna cook for maybe 2 minutes, max. You do not want it sitting around for longer than a couple minutes after cooking or it will want to get sticky, so you need to have everything ready to go. We plated the cheese bowls and salad and then finished the pasta.

I took fresh Tellicherry pepper berries and worked them in the molcajete to a medium grind. A rounded teaspoon of berries is plenty for darn near anybody’s taste; be careful with adding the pepper, taste steadily so you don’t go uberbort! I ground extra to fill a shaker with for the next few days use, just ‘cause…

While the pasta water heated, I put a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan with 4 ounces of unsalted butter on medium-high heat. I browned the butter to a nice medium tone and then added roughly 1 teaspoon of ground pepper and ½ cup of pasta water and incorporated quickly.

Add the pasta to the sauce and toss thoroughly; we did not add cheese to the sauce/pasta mixture until it was plated, but you can add and toss that as well if you prefer.

Load a generous portion of pasta into a cheese bowl, add haricots and garnish, (We used more cheese and fresh garlic chives from the garden) and serve right away!

The pasta was simply amazing; truly unbelievable the depth of flavor just from cheese, pepper and butter. Impossible to describe adequately, so y’all will just have to try it yourselves: As Mario likes to say, Buon Appetito!

Herbology


Mint, Rosemary, Garlic Chives and Zinnias

Funny thing, some of the herbs that may be considered aggressive from a taste standpoint can also be quite aggressive in their growth habits; stuff we call herbs can spend a great deal of their time engaged in weed-like activity. Basil, Mint, Thyme, Rosemary, just to name a few; these guys will not only grace a nice dish, they’ll make serious inroads on your backyard if ya let ‘em.

Granted, of those, most can be killed if you really go after ‘em. Only mint has survived pretty much every attempt I made to off it: That circumstance came about not because I don’t like the mint, (I do and ours is exemplary), but because it had worked its way under the back door jam and walls and was growing through and out of the house as opposed to merely beside it. Mint, I have come to realize, like bamboo, is never to be trusted…

Point is, all this wonderful stuff will grow for you darn near wherever you live and probably grow well with minimal attention, and as such, you need to grow it. The bottom line here is taste, and when it comes to herbs, as with any seasoning we want to use regularly, the fresher and higher the quality, the better.

Do a little bit of research and find what you can grow yourself; granted, your gardeners up there have herbs, and you can get ‘em, and you should but, you should also grow your own. Even in a cold climate, herbs don’t take up much room and can even be grown indoors during winter months. There is nothing that I know in cooking quite so satisfying as deciding what herbs you need for a dish, and then simply heading out the back door with a paring knife.

This brings us to the not-so-delicate question; “What about stuff from the supermarket?” Answer; what about it? They’re doing a fine job of holding shelves down, so leave ‘em to it… Seriously, even ‘gourmet’ seasonings from a supermarket are suspect to me. At our house, we treat herbs like we do coffee, and frankly, we buy green beans from very well known and trusted sources and roast our own, so…

Granted, you cannot grow everything you want – Just look at this spice cabinet and you’ll see what I mean:

What you see there also tells a few important stories about storing herbs:
1. There are good places to buy herbs you need to check out. fact is, almost all our stuff comes from two sources: World Spice and Butcher & Packer. As far as I am concerned, you rarely need to go further to find dang near anything, and the quality is as good as it gets.
2. How you store your herbs matters a lot. Glass jars with a very good seal are a must: World Spice sells jars, (As you can see from our cabinet) that are a great size and sport a fine seal. For the stuff you grow and process, you’ll want more. If you have a bunch of spice from the store, you can still put it to good use; toss all the spice, wash the jars and re-use ‘em. 😉 If you’re OCD like me, you can buy new jars with tight fitting lids and various shaker tops for not much dough; I got a set of 16 from Amazon for about $12.
3. Herbs are indeed fun to look at, but sunlight ain’t their friend; keep yours in a cool, dry place out of direct sun and they’ll last longer and stay fresher.

Processing herbs is really pretty darn easy, as you’d expect. Drying them is the best trick, of course, so once again, a cheap dehydrator comes in real handy. The sooner you process after harvesting, the better the flavor and punch, of course. Many herbs can be air dried with great success as well, and a few stems of rosemary or whatnot will smell wonderful as they do their thing.

Inspect your stuff for critters and dirt after harvesting. Don’t strip leaves from stems if your herb is a leafy one; dry ’em with minimal stems attached and you;ll get more flavor. For berries, such as pepper, coriander and the like, keep and store ‘em whole; you can whack ‘em into whatever form you need with that spare coffee bean grinder right before you’re ready to use them. Same goes for ordering spices and herbs from World Spice or whomever: You’ll note that they offer to sell pure spices and blends whole or ground – Get ‘em whole and grind ‘em as you use ‘em and you’ll get longer lasting product and better flavor and intensity.

Some herbs lend themselves wonderfully to flavoring oils and vinegars, as I’m sure you know. Rather than buying Tarragon vinegar, grow and make your own; you’ll get much better flavor, quality and satisfaction, guaranteed. Be careful about sanitation when doing these infusions, of course; being sunk into oil or vinegar does not guarantee safe eating!

Oil in and of itself isn’t prone to growing bacteria, but the stuff we may want to infuse in it is, so proper caution is a must: Your greatest possible concern is Botulism, (Botulinum). With that in mind, blending your own stuff and leaving it out for any length of time is not a great idea. If you’re making oils to be used right away, there’s no concern, but again, if you’re planning on keeping it around, ya gotta be careful: The key is water, ‘cause that’s what the bad bug needs to do its thing. If you have your infusing herbs 100% dried out, you’re fine, but realistically, how likely are we to achieve that? The easy solution is to refrigerate, and by so doing, assuming you’ve kept everything clean, you can store your infusions for a week or two without a hitch. Make sure, of course, that you’re using high quality oil and vinegar! If you’re giving stuff away, include a little card to explain to the uninitiated how to store and when to discard.

Vinegar, on the other hand, is a purty fine preservative; if your herbs are clean and fresh, you should be fine making infusions. Again, drying your herbs is best, just to be super safe, if you plan on keeping them around for a while. Although I’ve never seen it said you should do so, I discard anything over a month old, just to be on the safe side, and besides, after a month things are bound to be getting a bit funky, right?

If you’re making mixes of oil and vinegar, then the caution signs go back up, and the more stringent storage and discard rules apply once again.

For my mind, infused oils and vinegars should be predominantly single note creatures, like rosemary or tarragon solo. Simple mixes, following the Rule Of Three, are just fine too. By this, I mean no more than three spice notes; garlic/lime/dill, lemon/sage/rosemary, tomato/oregano/dill, etc. In all flavoring/infusing considerations, a teaspoon of herb/spice to a cup of oil or vinegar is a good starting point, then adjust as you see fit.

And while we’re talking mixes and blends… Checking into World Spice and Butcher & Packer, you’ll find a bunch of blends from all over the world; I encourage you to try some and then extrapolate on your own from that starting point.

Using spices and herbs can be fraught with danger, mostly from the too-much-and-too-many camp! Granted, some things need myriad ingredients to be what they are, black mole, as a fer instance; but if you watch food TV at all, especially something like Chopped, you’ll notice a pervasive and recurrent theme, wherein a competitor loads 12 different spices and herbs and liquors and such into one dish; invariably, the savvy restaurant pro judges always say “WAY too many spices/herbs/flavors/ideas going on here,” and they’re right.

Here’s my basic philosophy on creating and cooking great food; keep these tenets in mind and I think you can’t really ever go wrong:
1. First and foremost, eat and serve the highest quality ingredients you can find and afford; that really is job #1.
2. That said, let the taste, smell, appearance and overall impact of a great food speak; we choose what we do because we want to taste that, not spice covering that or anything else that masks, detracts or otherwise diminishes the taste of great food.
3. Balance a meal sensibly; be it portions or courses, folks like a nice variety and balance to a meal. Think not only about what folks like to eat, but how much and when. It’s actually for my mind much easier to serve big, multi course meals to a lot of folks then a couple, so plan and execute accordingly.

So, when it comes to seasoning, I’ll refer back once again to The Rule of Three; no more than three major notes in any one dish is a great general rule of thumb. Yes, it can and sometimes must be broken, and yes, salt and pepper do count… Is this for real? Yeah, it is. Love the high-end steakhouse taste and wonder what they do differently than you do? Great quality meat, properly butchered, stored and aged, usually nothing more than salt and pepper on it for seasoning, and done quickly over super high heat. Blown away by that green bean amusé bouche; fresh beans, lightly roasted, with butter, lemon, and salt. Crudité radish to die for; salt and good butter. Guacamole got your tongue; salt, lemon, chile; that’s it…

Get the picture? there are classic combos of course; garlic, lime, dill; lemon, thyme, pepper; basil, parsley, pepper; salt, cumin, oregano, and on and on. Pick some favorite notes, try some blending and tasting, and see where it takes you!

Smoke ’em if ya got ’em

Just a quick rejoinder to the salsa thread regarding smoking chiles. I should point out that, according to true smoking gourmands, I probably already blasphemed with my take on process; so be it. Cooking is as rife with The Right Way and the Only Way as guitar making, and that’s saying something. While some things do need to be done a certain way to get the right result, there is plenty of wiggle room left for the most part; smoking is, for my mind, one of those gray areas.


Freshly roasted Hatch chiles cooling

When I wrote up directions for smoking chiles, I made a broad assumption that everyone has or wants to have access to a smoker, and it ain’t necessarily so. As such, I thought I might offer some viable alternatives to the rest of y’all who want the flavor but not the additional stuff!

If you watch food TV, you probably have seen some variation on the stovetop smoker; all I can say is this; I wouldn’t go there unless you are cool with a house full of smoke. Pro kitchens can move air at a volume we can’t even touch and that’s that…

If you own a grill, you’re in business however. That said, it’s already time for a digression: Down here in the south, barbecue is almost religion, and how one gets there is near and dear to a cook’s heart. Hence, a little terminology is in order, and yeah, this is one of those things where it needs to be done a certain way!

A lot of folks say, “We’re gonna barbeque,” when what they mean and do is, in fact, grilling. In essence, true barbeque requires, first and foremost, indirect heat, and secondly, the ability to cook low and slow. With what you’ve read thus far about smoking, you might note that these two methods sounds a lot alike, and in fact, they are; true smoking also requires indirect heat and low and slow, and as such, the two are indeed intrinsically linked. Grilling, on the other hand, is cooking relatively quickly over direct heat, as we know and love with burgers, dawgs, corn on the cob, veggies, and the like. This is why you’ll see a barbeque/smoker and a grill in many a backyard.

Ok, so back on track. No smoker, but want the taste; no problem. There are a lot of wood products made for adding smoke to a grill these days; I’d bet your grocery has ‘em, and if they don’t, or don’t have what you want, head on over to Butcher and Packer online; they have everything in very high quality and very decent prices. The products made for the grill are cheap, ready to use and allow you to get some flavors you might not have readily available, like Mesquite, Apple, or Hickory.

If you do, on the other hand, have a decent smoking wood at hand, then small pieces and chips, soaked in water for a half hour or so prior to cooking, will do the trick just fine.

Take whatever wood source you’ve chosen, make a bag roughly 6” to 8” square with a double layer of aluminum foil, put your chips, etc in that, seal it up, and poke a good few holes in the top. Place your smoker bag on your flame deflector/above your burner with the heat on low, and put your chiles right above that, (Or use one for each burner if you’re doing a big batch process), close the lid and let ‘er rip. You should get a decent +/- 10 to 15 minutes of smoke from such a rig and that’ll do the trick just fine.


Homegrown chipotles on the grill…

And last but not least, how about if you don’t own a grill, don’t want one, don’t have room, etc? Still, no problem: Get online with Butcher and Packer again and look up their powdered hickory smoke. It is great stuff, all natural, packs a wallop and I defy dang near anyone to tell the difference on the finished product as to where the smoke flavor came from. This stuff is great in the dead of winter or spur of the moment. Mix the powder with a little olive oil, rub it on your chiles and roast ‘em in your oven; great flavor, great smell while cooking and no smoke filled home!

Smoking is not limited to chiles either, of course; you can use these methods for tomatoes, onions, garlic, potatoes, and on and on! Try smoking something you’ve not done before, like fresh cherries, apples, or limes – You’ll be surprised what great things you can and will do!

¡Salsa Fresca!

This just in!

Hey Eben and Monica,

OK, the tomatoes are now coming in faster than anyone wants to eat sliced, fresh tomatoes, and the time of salsa and stewed tomatoes is upon us.

I have made salsa a few times, but never really settled on a recipe. It has been good, but not great, and I’d like to take it up a notch. I also would like to make at least one big batch of real “chipotle” salsa with roasted __________ (peppers? jalapenos? tomatoes? what do I roast?) And how do I roast? On a gas grill, or in a gas oven (my only two available options, unless I start a fire in the guitar shop.) I have 4 kinds of tomatoes: Sungold Cherry (good for a sweet salsa?), Italian Plum, Oregon Spring medium big, red, slicing tomato, and an heirloom called Pruden’s Purple. I have mucho Jalapenos, plus several varieties of sweet peppers (Ace, Lipstick, Carmen, Banana.) Our Cilantro is at the coriander stage, so that will need to be purchased. I’ll also buy onions, as ours are small and probably too mild for good salsa zing.

When talking salsa recipes, one has to put their cards on the table about just how hot is hot enough. For me personally, I have had some changes to my innards, where my tongue can handle a lot hotter than my stomach and intestines, so if you would be so kind, please offer a variation on salsa recipe(s) that are closer to commercial “medium” than “hot.” I know I lose macho points for that, but physiological reality is reality.

Thanks!

Dennis

Oh it will absolutely be our pleasure, D-Man!! Salsa runs like water at our house; we always have several varieties working, as any self-respecting Tejano should! We’ll divide the subject broadly into fresh and cooked salsas and go from there.

Basic considerations for salsas are very loose; use whatever variety of tomato floats your boat; sweet, savory, peppery, any and every note can and will do nicely. Sweet onions are better than hot or too peppery; there are plenty of other flavor notes to pick up other than hot onions. Fresh cilantro is a must; if you don’t have it, don’t add it.

Now, let us address heat right up front. When it comes to using chiles, do use your imagination, but as Dennis alluded to in his request, in general it’s best to make things cooler than you might like if you’re a real ChileHead: If you’re making something to feed others, you really should make the heat level lowest common denominator. I don’t mean don’t have any heat in a salsa,, because to me, that’s just tomato sauce; I do mean build something reasonable that most folks can handle, and then add a side dish of fresh chopped chiles for your fellow ChileHeads to add as they see fit. As some of you know, I dig heat big time; that said, when we do salsa for others, we use one cored and seeded mild jalapeño for the chile and that’s it…

OK, let’s do the fresh stuff first; literally translated, Pico de Gallo means ‘Roosters Beak’ and maybe for that reason is also sometimes called Salsa Fresca. Pico is our personal favorite manifestation of the art. The essence of it is simply tomato and onion, though for our minds, you must have cilantro and chile as well. Pico lends itself to many, many things, from simple munching with chips, to a scoop on soup or stew or damn near anything else from eggs to enchiladas. Here’s the basic recipe we work from:

Classic Pico de Gallo

4 tomatoes of your choice, cored, seeded and diced
1 sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, minced
1-3 chiles of your choice, cored, seeded and fine diced.
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste.

Note: You might look at the recipe above and ask, “Sugar? huh?!” Well, in pico especially, salt and/or sugar can and will bring out flavor balances, so experiment and use them as you see fit.

Options:
MANY, is the bottom line. Add FRESH lime, lemon, orange, or grapefruit juice to add a great citrus note to the flavor. Juice a tomato and add that. Garlic, dill, shallot, annatto, chipotle, smoked paprika, smoked cherries, smoked salt, smoked pepper seed – Get the picture? Experiment and see what floats your boat!

Picante:
A lot of folks have asked about the difference between a pico style salsa and a picante style salsa; it’s a great question, not a dumb one! To us down here, pico is the raw, mixed veggie salsa with a minimal juice or sauce component, while picante is a salsa that is predominantly sauce-based. If you think of restaurant salsa, it is much more often picante style than pico. That said, there’s a broad assumption that picante style salsas are always cooked, and I’m here to say that it ain’t necessarily so; to me, the freshest and best picantes are NOT cooked, but that’s just me – You do what floats your boat, right? Right! One general note, the components of picante should be a finer dice/mince than pico; it’s just a bit more blended/refined…

Fresh Salsa Picante

4 tomatoes of your choice
1 onion, skinned and minced
¼ cup minced cilantro
2-3 chiles of your choice, seeded, cored and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, and cumin to taste.

Blanche your tomatoes; peel them all after blanching.
Take 3 of your ‘maters and put ‘em in a blender, processor, or have at ‘em with a boat motor until they are thoroughly liquefied. Add salt, pepper, garlic and cumin to taste to this liquid and set aside.

Dice your remaining tomatoes, and combine with onion, cilantro, and chiles. Add your liquid component and blend thoroughly. Taste and adjust spicing as needed. Refrigerate and allow to chill and blend for at least an hour prior to serving.

Cooked Salsas:
The primary delights of cooked salsa are twofold; one, you get a blending and sophistication of flavor that is not always found in a fresh salsa, and two, you get longevity, which is very good when winter days grow shorter, eh? That said, cooking a salsa also allows you to add subtlety of flavor that may not always fly in a fresh product, so feel free to think outside the box in this regard!

For recipe considerations, I offer the following:

Classic Red Salsa

10 -12 tomatoes of your choice
1-2 med onion, diced.
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 chiles, your choice, blanched, stemmed, veined and seeded.
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Blanch half your tomatoes, then peel and blend, puree or motorboat to a nice, even consistency. Put that mix into a sauce pan over medium heat.
Add oil to a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add onion and chiles and sauté for a couple minutes. Remove from heat and garlic and allow to sauté for another minute or two.
Combine sauted veggies, the rest of your tomatoes, Cored, seeded and diced), the cilantro, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer on low heat for about an hour. Remove from heat and place into a non-reactive container to cool. Will last several days refrigerated, also can be canned, of course!

Salsa Verde

10-12 tomatillos, husks removed, of course…
1-2 small sweet onion, diced
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2-4 green chiles of your choice, (Anaheim or Hatch are nice), diced
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste.

Employ the exact same process as for the red salsa above and you’re good to go!

Smokin!
First and foremost is Dennis’ question above; how about chipotle? Yeah, buddy! Like I said above, we love jalapeños and eat ‘em like candy; we love chipotle just as much, you see, ‘cause they ain’t nothin’ more than a
dried and/or smoked jalapeño, and that’s a fact! Smoking or roasting your own chiles will get just the right note you want.

I take my chiles and roast them on the grill as my go-to method; just layer chiles on the grates and let ‘em have it until the skins are black and blistered. Remove them and allow to cool. You can skin, stem and seed then and further process for freezing or canning, or simply bag ‘em up, suck the air out and freeze ‘em right like that; all those options will work great and give a very nice flavor.

If you have a smoker, put a nice even layer of whole chiles under moderately low heat smoke, (Under 200 degrees for me) for 20 to 60 minutes depending on the level of smoky you want. I’ve smoked already roasted chiles and fresh ones; they all come out nicely. If I’m going to use the dehydrator and completely dry the peppers after smoking, I use fresh; if I’m gonna can or freeze, I usually roast lightly first, then smoke.

Fully dried, smoked jalapeños processed in your spice blender, (AKA a second, cheap coffee bean grinder), makes chipotle flake and powder, with which you can do SO much! For salsa, add your smoked peppers in lieu or in combination with fresh chiles to get the level of smokiness and flavor you like; that usually means making several batches to find just the right blend – Darn…

As for canning, while many have hot water processed salsa and done OK, I have to say that I prefer and advise pressure canning for all salsas; because of that, cooked salsas lend themselves much better to the process than fresh do, so keep that in mind as you haul out the canning gear this fall.

So there ya go, D-Man, did I cover everything?

Good, Better, Best

OK so, let’s generalize about eating veggies. We’ve covered some specific eats and styles of cooking, but big picture, what to do? Here’s a few thoughts.

Crudité:
AKA, fancy French word for raw! Raw veggies are wonderful, and there’re few better methods to get great flavor from them: Crudité veggies are usually prepped and cut to bite size, which is nice for your diners, given the robust textures involved. While crudité veggies are usually done as an appetizer, they needn’t be held to just that: If you’re doing a multi-course meal, consider a crudité course between others as a nice palette cleanser. You can certainly add raw veggies to a main course or salad as well. A crudité course typically involves something to dip the veggies in, like a nice olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or a vinaigrette; even super simple things like butter and good salt with fresh radishes is a real treat.

Steaming:
A lot of veggies will turn out grandly if steamed, but not that many folks do it – I’m not sure why, maybe we feel we need special equipment, etc… Truth be told, a steaming basket does do a better job and if you’re truly gonna steam, ya kinda need one: See, to do this correctly, you need a little boiling water turning to steam beneath your veggies, with the rising, moist heat doing the cooking. If your veggies are sitting in boiling water, well, you’re not steaming, OK? Obvious choices to best benefit from this method include sugar snap peas, carrots, artichokes, asparagus, quartered onion or cabbage, and…

Boiling:
Well, let’s face it, boiling is kinda crude in the big picture of things: If you’re preparing nice, delicate, flavorful veggies, why boil ‘em to death if you have options? Answer, don’t, just do the ones that need or want this method. Truth be told, I can’t think of many things other than spuds that really want to be boiled… Yams, maybe turnips… I just can’t think of much more, and truth be told again, most of these will taste, look, and feel better with other methods, such as…

Roasting:
Roasting is cooking with dry heat, which might sound an awful lot like baking because… It is. Either method speaks of cooking with dry heat, with maybe a small amount of fat or liquid; baking usually refers to breads and baked goods, while roasting speaks to eat, fish, poultry, etc. For veggies, roasting is best done in an open pan, (We like glass and stone a lot, but metal’s fine if that’s what you’ve got). Dang near any veggie you want to cook will love being roasted and will reward you with depth and intensity of flavors that’ll knock your socks off. From potatoes to tomatoes and everything in between, try it, you’ll like it. Love asparagus or artichoke steamed? Try ‘em roasted with a drizzle of good olive oil and salt. Roast disparate veggies, (i.e. those that cook at different times), together by varying the cut you use to prepare each veg; for example, cut potatoes and carrots relatively small, while leaving celery, onion and tomato bigger – Balance things right and they all get done at the same time and are juuuuuust right! Roasting absolutely begs for flavor, so indulge, but conservatively – Apply my Golden Rule of Three, (No more than 3 spices, major flavor notes, etc), and have some fun: Olive oil, salt and Oregano; Garlic, lime, dill; thyme, chive, and balsamic vinegar; Salt, Pepper, and Rosemary – get the picture?

Braising:
Brai… huh?! Oh, trust me, if you don’t know braising, you wanna, for real! Braising means browning food in a fat, and then slow cooking it in a covered, liquid filled container. Do veggies dig this? Is the Pope Austrian? YES!! What are we talking about here? OK, demo time – how about killer root veggies for a nice treat? take potatoes, carrots and beets, cut ‘em into roughly bite sized pieces, and then heat a sauté pan to high with good olive oil in it. Brown the root veggies evenly, then put them in a casserole pan and cover with a bottle of good dark beer, like a Porter or Stout of your choice. Add garlic, salt, pepper, and a shot of Tabasco, and let that mix simmer until the veggies are fork tender, then serve with… Get the picture?

Anyway, there ain’t much right and wrong, just what you like, what you don’t, and what you ain’t tried yet – So try something here you’ve not, and let me know whatcha think!

Molcajete Madness

This just in:

Well, I’m not actually asking about pesto, I’m asking about the molcajete. I found that many people were disappointed with trying to season theirs; maybe an inferior product that just gave up grit forever, maybe just for decoration? I’d have to buy one online (not too many molcajete stores around here)–so what do I look for and how do I season it?

Thanks for the great posts.
Chris

Always a pleasure, Chris!

Well, first and foremost, unless you’re in a big cosmopolitan city, you DO need to buy online. I did, mostly because that’s a ton easier and more efficient than traipsing all over Fo’t Wuth!

Secondly, know that molcajetes are made from dang near every kind of stone you can name, and they are not all created equally: If it’s real cheap and/or too good to be true, then it probably is: Safe to say that the cheaper rocks are more prone to never ending grit sloughing off, which we most certainly do not want. The best stuff, (So say my Mexican friends), is granite or basalt with a relatively low sand content. I bought a Granite model, made by Vasconia and sold through Amazon; I couldn’t be happier with this guy; it has a great texture, is very sturdy, and cost about $30, which is right in the wheelhouse for decent stuff.

Now, as for the seasoning issue; a good molcajete will shed a bit of grit, because it is what it is, stone being ground with stone. A lousy one will shed lots and never stop, regardless of what you do; bottom line, avoid cheap, no-name stuff, ‘cause that is, as you noted, just for looks at best… That said, just like a good cast iron pan, seasoning a molcajete takes a loooooong time; this is why both tools are passed down through generations.

In any case, ya gotta start somewhere, so here’s what you do.

1. Immerse your new cool tool in water for 3 or 4 hours.
2. Pull ‘er out and let ‘er dry thoroughly.
3. Put ¼ cup of rice in the beast and grind until the rice is a molcajete-colored powder; stop when you get there and clear the rice dust out.
4. Combine a tablespoon each of garlic, rock salt, cumin and cilantro; grind all that into the molcajete and coat it thoroughly with the paste. Let that stuff sit in the molcajete for 6 to 8 hours in the fridge, then clean it out under cool running water.
5. Now go to town on your favorite recipe; if you got a good tool, you will not be eating grit and things are good to go. The rest of the seasoning happens over the weeks, months and years…

So, get out there and get you one, y’all!

Pesto Power

Pesto Power

This just in! Hey E, you got a recipe for pesto to die for, (or kill for – that is, cut down the basil plants)?

OK, wrinkle: how about vegan, i.e. minus the Parmesan?

And, further from tradition, but more in line with folks that just can’t afford $30 a pound pine nuts, how about with walnuts?

My pleasure, buddy; this one’s right in my wheelhouse! When it comes to delicious, nothin’ tops simple and good; like a stripped down tomato sauce from primo fruit, a basic basil pesto is hard to beat. Keep in mind that ‘pesto’ stems from the verb pestâ, to pound, hence pesto can be made from many things other than basil. That said, ya gotta start somewhere and basil pesto is that place!

Classic Basil Pesto
1 well-packed cup of fresh basil leaves
¼ cup Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, fine grated
3 or 5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 small garlic clove, fine diced
Salt to taste

Basil requires gentle handling; it doesn’t care for being doused, so don’t if you don’t need to. Inspect your basil and brush clean of dirt, etc.

In a sauté pan on medium heat, toast pine nuts until they just start to turn golden brown. Don’t walk away during the process; nothing burns faster than nuts!

I use a molcajete for grinding stuff in lieu of a standard mortar and pestle; I like the rough granite texture and find that it gets ingredients to the consistency I like faster and more uniformly than any other hand grinder. Just as guacamole really needs to be made by hand in a molcajete to taste right, so pesto must be ground by hand!

Put basil, toasted nuts, and garlic into your molcajete and gently but firmly grind the ingredients against the wall of the vessel until you get a nice, uniform paste.

Add grated cheese and combine with a fork or spoon.

Add olive oil 1 tablespoon at a time until you reach the consistency you like; a little more or less is fine, do it the way you wanna eat it!

Add a little salt just to brighten and raise flavors and blend, not to make it salty!

Serve pesto right away, mixed with pasta of your choice, (It’s great with angel hair, or with tortellini, etc.

Recipe makes about a cup of finished pesto.

Options:
In keeping with Dennis’ request, a vegan alternative to traditional pesto, aka, a no-cheese version: I’d say a few tablespoons of miso would get you to a very decent alternative!

Now, once again, almost anything goes with a pesto; your main criteria are tastes you like and ingredients that will bind and stay together for service. You can use any nut or cheese you like, and I’d substitute at the same volume as the original recipe calls for.

I’ve done a mint/pecan/feta version that was fantastic, as a for instance. Also, sun dried tomato pesto is spectacular and a real treat; I’ve done that with fresh, (Soft), mozzarella with great success as well.

Bottom line, experiment in small batches and have some fun!

Das Spaetzle

Reading the paper this morning, I saw an article on a local restaurant serving Pan Roasted Halibut with Dijon Spaetzle; I pretty much started drooling right off the bat… I was drinking coffee, hadn’t had breakfast, and didn’t have any Halibut, but I sure do have the basics for Spaetzle: There was no recipe in the article, but being a savory breakfast guy, I knew I could figure that one out and do it up, so I did, and here it is.

Spaetzle means “little sparrow,” in German, which I guess is a take on the shape or size or… I dunno, anyway, I love it and hadn’t made or had it in years. Spaetzle is basically a little noodle that is most commonly served as a side, like spuds, but you can do all kinds of things to it, since its basic dough just begging for inspiration. They go great as a bed for something wonderful, (Like the article noted), or as a side; only limit is your imagination and larder.

My version came out great, so I’ll lay it on ya here. I think Spaetzle screams for cheese, personally; most of the German cheeses are white and lean toward the Swiss than cheddar, etc. I made some Queso Blanco last night, and decided to try that with these guys; they paired up wonderfully! ( I re-posted the queso recipe below as well.)
Note on the chives; I used ’em because we grow ’em and I love ’em, but you could use anything that pairs well with mustard; Rosemary, Shallot…

Dijon Spaetzle

4 large eggs
¾ cup whole milk
2 cups all purpose flour, (Not self-rising!)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chives, minced
Salt and Pepper to taste

Salt a pot of water until it tastes salty, (Kinda sea waterish) and bring to a boil.

Combine eggs, milk, mustard and chives and beat well. Add flour slowly but surely until you end up with a sticky batter, (More toward the pancake side than the dough side).

Spoon about half the batter into a sieve or colander with roughly ¼” holes. Take that to your pot of boiling water, take a spatula or pastry knife and gently scrape the batter through the holes.

Allow Spaetzle to boil for about 2 minutes, until it’s just al dente; remove from the water onto a clean plate.

Melt your butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Toss in your Spaetzle and stir constantly so they butter thoroughly coats the noodles, and you just start to get a bit of golden brown in them.

Transfer Spaetzle to a serving plate, add salt and pepper and garnish with fresh parsley.

Queso Blanco:

One gallon whole milk
1/2 cup lime juice
Salt to taste

Heat the milk in a non-aluminum pot on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until it looks like it’s just about to boil (DON’T let it boil!); temperature should be 185 degrees.

Add lime juice. The curds will separate from the whey and the mixture will look grainy, kind of like you’ve just thrown a bunch of corn meal into a pot of skim milk. Simmer for a few minutes.

Pour contents into a cheesecloth-lined colander and let it drain thoroughly: To save the whey to make ricotta, put the colander over a pot.

Sprinkle the curds with salt; go saltier than you normally would; the salt will drain from the cheese as it dries. Now is the time to add any herbs, spices or chopped chiles if you like.

Gather the curds in the center of the cheesecloth and tie the ends; hang the cloth on the faucet to drain for a few hours, (At least four hours, overnight is better.

Refrigerated, it keeps about the same as fresh milk.

Viva Tomate!

This just in: “Tomatoes are coming! You’ve written a lot about preserving, so how about some of your favorite fresh dishes as well as a thought or two on preserving tomatoes?”

It will be my great pleasure! I walked the tomatoes at Neighborhood Gardeners with Grant, and the smell is still fresh in my mind; to me, there’s nothing like the aroma of growing tomatoes that says ‘garden’ more. I envy y’all the amazing varieties you’re gonna enjoy, especially among the heirloom stuff that you’ll simply never, ever see in a store.

OK, so fresh stuff first:

With beautiful heirloom ‘maters, (Southern for Tomato…), you’ve simply got to do a dish or two that lets the fruit speak; here’s another fantastic amuse bouche.

Simply take a tomato or two of your favorite variety, slice them about ¼” thick, arrange on a plate, season with a little sea salt and a light drizzle of olive oil, and that is that – You don’t need anything more and this way, you really get to enjoy the depth and character of a truly good tomato!

Next comes sauce, because you simply must do this as well. This version is a take on a classic Pomarola, (Known over here as Marinara, this is how to really do it; nothing like the commercial crap out there…) There are a bunch of varieties, this is my take on a Sicilian style.


Salsa alla Pomarola

1 lb of tomatoes, blanched, cored, peeled and rough chopped (About ¾”)
4 or 5 sun dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil, (See below and make your own!)
5 or 6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, fine diced
1 celery stalk, fine diced
5 or 6 fresh basil leaves

Sauté garlic, carrot, and celery in olive oil until carrots are fork tender.
Add tomatoes, ½ cup white wine, 3 tblspns of olive oil and bring to a simmer.
Fine dice, grind or process your sun-dried tomatoes into a nice paste; add this to the simmering good stuff. Let the mix cook for 1 hour, covered.

Remove sauce from heat, and blend thoroughly, (Blender, food processor, or my personal fave, a stick blender, AKA boat motor)

Return blended sauce to heat, add 4 ounces of butter, and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes more.

Chiffenade your basil leaves, and grate some fresh Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, or Asiago cheese.

Serve over angel hair pasta, garnished with fresh basil and cheese.

OK, how about a super simple, cool summer tomato dish?

Tomato – Avocado Salad

3 tomatoes, blanched, peeled, cored and diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 small bulb Shallot, minced
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine tomato, avocado and shallot, mix gently in a non-reactive bowl. Add roughly 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve straight up, or with toasted Italian or French bread, lightly brushed with a garlic clove.

How about another, since we’re on a string of 100+ degree days down here? This is my take on an Spanish favorite:

Gazpacho Andaluz (Cold Tomato Soup)

2 pounds tomatoes, roasted, peeled, and cored
1 clove of garlic
½ Lemon Cucumber, peeled and cored
½ red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, roasted and peeled
½ cup day old bread, diced ¼”
¼ cup Olive Oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste

To roast your tomatoes and peppers, cut them in half, brush lightly with olive oil and put them on your grill or under a broiler until the skins start to blacken; pull ‘em out and let ‘em cool before prepping further.

Put the whole shebang in a blender or food processor, (Or have at it with the boat motor) until everything is smoothly blended. Place in a non-reactive bowl or container and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt in the middle of a cup or bowl of soup, and a nice piece of bread to wipe it all up with!

And finally, tomato desert, you ask? Absolutely… Keep in mind, technically, tomatoes are fruit, not vegetables, and as such, they make fine deserts indeed!

Tomato Granita

2 pounds tomatoes of your choice, (Naturally, go for something nice and sweet!)
1.5 tablespoons fresh lime juice, (FRESH, NOT bottled!)
¼ cup fresh cilantro
salt
Optional: For a version with zing, add a moderately hot chile of your choice, blanched, peeled and veined.

Blanch all your ‘maters, then peel ‘em and put everything into a blender, food processor, or have at ‘em with the boat motor.

After blending, run the mixture through a chinoise or strainer, (A chinoise, the conical metal strainer, is really perfect for this kind of thing and super handy for canning and preserving; get one.)

Pour your strained mixture into a glass baking dish big enough to allow the layer to be roughly ½” thick or so.

Set the dish on your freezer for around an hour, or until the mix looks frozen around the edges. Use a fork or small spatula to scrape all the icy part into the middle of the dish, then let it freeze some more. Keep repeating this cycle about every half hour or so until everything is frozen evenly.

Serve in a martini glass with a little sprig of mint.

You can easily prepare Granita the day before as well!

So, preserving, eh?

Well, here again, my favorites are canning and drying.

As for canning, while traditionally tomatoes are done via the hot water method due to their relatively high acidity, I think that pressure canning yields better and more intense flavor; also, if you’re canning tomato-based sauce, you really do need to pressure can for your safety.

There are lots of canned tomato recipes out there, so I won’t go into specifics about that, other than to say that you should certainly can tomatoes in your favorite styles; if you like the Pomarola, make a bunch and can it. I like to use several versions of tomatoes when I cook; sometimes I want whole, sometimes crushed, sometimes sauce, sometimes puree – If that’s the case for you, too, then can all your favorite versions and, this winter, enjoy a level of taste and quality no store will ever, ever touch!

Drying:

Sun dried tomatoes are a huge treat; nothing but the sun adds such intense flavor in them!

Slice your favorites ¼” thick and lay them out to dry, (Or use a dehydrator, if you must.) Dried tomato flake is a wonderful thing to have in your spice cabinet, so cut those slices into roughly ¾” pieces and dry those – You can add them to soups, stews, eggs, all kinds of things. Quarter or half your favorite variety, dry them and then preserve those in olive oil; they’re unbelievable on pizza, or with smoked chicken, basil and mozzarella cheese in a grilled sandwich. Finally, put dried tomatoes into a coffee grinder, (Do you have one of these just for spice? NO? GET ONE!! You can find used grinders for a couple of bucks at a second hand place; I keep two around just for spices – We all know that spice lasts longer and tastes better if kept whole; store yours this way and grind what you need when you need it; you get better flavor, longer lasting spice, and lower cost to boot.) Anyway, back to those tomatoes…. Grind them into powder, and you can add that to soup, stew, or to biscuit, pasta, pizza or tortilla dough for a fantastic flavor and a very cool look too!

This weeks other mail bag question: “you wrote about not using table salt for canning, what about for cooking? I see a lot of salts out there, is there really any difference?”

Short answer; ye Gods, YES! Excellent question and thank you for not letting me gloss over this; let’s talk about salt and pepper, since they’re the main go-to seasonings.

One of the main things about good restaurant food, or great restaurant food versus yours, maybe, is the nature and quality of seasoning. Great chefs don’t need nor use 14 things in one dish; they use 1 to maybe 4 or 5 max. The idea of seasoning is to enhance flavor, not overcome or mask it. Salt is incredibly versatile and absolutely necessary in cooking as far as I am concerned, and pepper runs a close second.

Notice that even in relatively sweet dishes, like the roasted corn salsa we made a while back, there is salt; this is because it definitely enhances flavor when used properly, and by used properly, I mean not overused!

That said, what salt you use matters a great deal. Treat salt no differently than any other ingredient; in other words, would you settle for a lousy cut of beef or veggies that weren’t fresh as you can get ’em? No, of course not, so don’t settle for sub-par seasonings either! Plain ol’ table salt is crap – NO flavor, treated with iodine, and terrible for seasoning and cooking. The bottom line is, If I have to buy salt from the grocery, I get either untreated sea or Kosher salt and so should you; read your labels so you know what’s really in there! I use good quality salt from a known source with nothing but salt in it; (Even Morton Kosher salt has prussiate of soda in it as an anti-caking agent; I neither need nor want that in my food, frankly…).

OK, on to the second part of the question, regarding the varieties out there and whether they’re worth it or not: Short answer, you betcha! I just went and counted, and I have 11, count ’em 11 varieties of salt in my pantry, including; curing, kosher, a couple varieties of smoked, (Alder and Mesquite), sea salt, sel de mer, Janes, Utah Basin, Murray River Flake, Hawaiian, and Black. Each and every one has a completely unique flavor profile that lends itself to certain styles and genres of cooking. For me, it’s a requirement; you don’t probably need that many, but two or three really good salts will serve you well and make your food taste that much better.

Similarly, plain ol’ black I-don’t-have-a-clue-where-it’s-from-or-what-variety-it-is pepper is junk. Pepper is a great baseline spice to add a little bit of zing to a dish without getting overboard or exotic; to me, good pepper is a must-have in, once again, more than one variety. Malabar or Tellicherry are great black peppers, with genuine flavor and consistent quality. That said, green, red, and white pepper have completely unique tastes that will go better with some things than black does. Our every day pepper here is a hand blended mix of all those colors and adds a really nice note to food. Once again, don’t buy it from the store; they may have it, but for what they charge for a tiny jar, you can and should buy a pound of good stuff online.

We’ll get into broad seasonings later on, but for now, suffice it to say that most of what you can get from the average grocery is crap and not worth your money. For dependable quality, you either have to go local with someone you know and trust, or buy online. Butcher and Packer and World Spice are tremendous spice resources; the quality is the best you’ll find anywhere, and the prices are seriously good; check them both out.