Win some, lose some: The Homemade Sriracha Experiment

Day 4 of the sriracha fermentation process and I have one disaster and one success.

The disaster: I was gone all day yesterday and didn’t check the sauces last night and unfortunately, bad bacteria took the opportunity to take over the red sauce. There was a thick layer of fuzzy mold in the top and a smell of fruity acetone in the jar. I scraped the mold off just to see what the condition of the sauce was underneath and it was still brilliant red but smelling of pepper garlic alcohol. I think that a combination of very ripe and juicy peppers and a warmer than desirable fermentation temperature got the best of me. I’m going to try it again soon though because up until last night, the mash smelled amazing. Chalk this one up to environmental factors. I’d consider using a narrower mouthed jar next time too to see if that helps, but the lack of temperature control in my apartment is probably a much more critical factor. Once the radiators go off and I can get some more red chiles I’m going to make another batch because it. smelled. awesome.

The green sauce, on the other hand stayed much more stable. A little bubbling but nothing like the jar of red sauce and there wasn’t any mold on the surface. The color softened a little from the original bright green but stayed pretty bright. I added the vinegar and simmered the sauce for 5-8 minutes before blending the mash into a smooth puree and sieving it. The green sriracha is tangy and garlicky and hot hot hot with a little ginger kick that I’m really happy about. I think it will be great in soup and beans and maybe even with some skirt steak with chopped cilantro and onions as a little fusion take on chimmichurri sauce.

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Gingery Green Sriracha 

makes about 1 1/2 cups

3/4 pound green jalapeños

2-3 cloves garlic

1 knob of ginger (about 1 ounce)

1 teaspoon natural sea salt

2 tablespoons raw sugar

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

Snip off just the long end of the jalapeño stems and coarsely chop the whole chile into 5 or 6 pieces; coarsely chop the garlic cloves and ginger. Along with the salt and sugar, put the chiles, garlic, and ginger into the bowl of a food processor. Make sure you cover the spout so you don’t burn your eyes. Pulse the jalapeño mixture until it is a rough purée without any uneven chunks.

Pour the jalapeño purée into a clean glass jar and loosely cover with a lid. Don’t tighten the lid so that the gasses that form during fermentation can escape. Place the jar in a cool (if you have it) dark place and allow it to begin to bubble and expand.  It should smell like garlic and chiles but pay attention to any sharp alcohol smells or excessive mold sprouting on the top. Allow it to ferment for 2-3 days, stirring occasionally.

Pour the fermented mash into a small sauce pan, mix with the white vinegar and bring to a boil. lower the heat and cook for 5 to 8 minutes at a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to cool off. Pour it into the bowl of your food processor or blender and process until very smooth, 2-3 minutes. Sieve the smooth puree through a fine mesh strainer to remove bits of skin and seeds. Scrape the mash through the strainer until there is just a little dry pulp left in the sieve.

Use a funnel to pour the strained sauce into a bottle or jar; I used a squeeze bottle I got from a restaurant supply store, but a glass jar or recycled sriracha bottle would be great too. Refrigerate.

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Shhhhh….Super Secret Valentine’s Gift Experiment

As much as an experiment that I’m posting about on a public blog and which is fermenting odiferously away in our pantry/wine cellar/storage closet, whiffing more and more garlic and chile fumes into the apartment by the hour can BE super secret, I am making a pair of sriracha sauces for my Valentine.

We are the sort of family that has a significant percentage of refrigerator door shelf space allocated to bottles and bottles of hot sauce because each one has a specific and non transferable purpose and we really really need all of them. From classic Tabasco and Caribbean scotch bonnet sauce for black beans to earthy harissa that I use in a lot of my braised sauces and smoky hot chipotle in adobo, amarillo paste from Peru to the green-capped Rooster brand sriracha sauce, we keep adding to our collection.

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Garlicky sriracha is a favorite. It goes so well on so many things and I’ve been wanting to try to make some at home for a while. So I used the impetus of upcoming Valentine’s Day to go ahead and make it. It seems like gifts that can be consumed are a sure hit, particularly since we don’t really like accumulating a lot of stuff.

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I used two recipe sources: this write-up on Serious Eats  and another on Viet World Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen. Both compared fresh sauce vs. fermented and had used several different types of chiles. While I’m not trying to duplicate the Huy Fong “Rooster” sauce, I wanted to be along the same lines so I decided to use the red jalapeños and fermentation method they use for the first red sauce. I had bought green jalapeños intending to try to ripen them before I ran across the red ones at Manhattan Fruit Exchange so I used those for a green sriracha with a little ginger addition.

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Yesterday I did the first step, processing the chiles and garlic and then putting them in loosely covered jars in the closet to get the sauce to ferment.

When I checked them this afternoon, some of yesterday’s vivid color had begun to soften and I could smell a mellower garlic and chile fragrance. The puree had separated from the liquid a little and started to bubble and expand. I had expected it to take a couple of days to start fermenting but with it being so cold here, the radiators have been on a lot which makes the apartment a little warmer than normal. Warmth quickens dough fermentation so I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re so active. I stirred and re-covered them and put them back in the closet but I may put them beside a window tonight to cool them down a little. I don’t want to get them too cold and put the bacteria to sleep so I’ll have to keep an eye on it- maybe do a condensation cooler like we do to regulate the temperature of our beer while it ferments.

Here’s a picture of the fermenting sauce:

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So, y’all just keep this surprise between us until Friday and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes and write up the process I used, including the recipes and variations.

Color Inspiration: Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata

It’s funny how a meal can kind of form itself in my mind through a spectrum of memories, visual inspiration, and serendipity at the farmers market.

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I brought home a bag full of produce from the farmers market and was so excited about the beauty of the pile of eggplants, squash, beans, peppers. I spread it out on the table at home like a vegetal color wheel. It was a pastel summer collection with the exception of the tomatoes, a watercolor wash of violet, gold, ivory and green. I loved the tonal spectrum of squash blossoms and wax peppers and decided to play with an old favorite  by adding squash blossoms to a cheese filled pepper frittata.

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This is a gentle dish, subtly  flavored, the mildest hint of heat from the ivory chartreuse peppers softened and mellowed by the creamy eggs and cheese. Squash blossoms infuse their delicate herbal flavor into the eggs as they bake. And if you prefer an even mellower flavor, go with banana wax peppers rather than its younger, slightly hotter cousin the Hungarian wax. The difference between Hungarian and banana wax peppers is maturity and heat level. Hungarian wax peppers are younger, a little thicker fleshed, and mildly spicy. Banana wax peppers are a little larger, mild and sweet with thin flesh.

This dish is easy-going in another way: do you like gooey strings of melted cheese oozing out with each bite or do you prefer the creamy tanginess of fresh goat cheese? Different cheeses produce different results, both lovely depending on your mood.

For a buttery gooey melting cheese, I like a Fontina Fontal or Monterrey Jack. They melt beautifully but have a bit more flavor than Mozzarella. Goat cheese doesn’t melt but since it’s already soft and creamy, you may find its flavor makes up for that. An herb-flavored goat cheese is also a good way to add some extra flavor if you like.

I’ve written this recipe to serve 2 but the proportions of 2 eggs, blossoms, and peppers per person are easy to double. You’ll just need to increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes per additional serving.

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Squash Blossom and Wax Pepper Frittata 

4 squash blossoms

4 Hungarian wax peppers or banana wax peppers

4 eggs

2 ounces cheese

salt

Cheese to grate over the top

Preheat the oven to 350

Trim the stem ends of the blossoms to leave about an inch of stem. Gently open the blossom a bit and use your finger to pop the stamen off and remove it. The petals may tear a bit but that isn’t a problem since you’ll be twisting them closed around the cheese.

Make a slit down the length of the peppers with a paring knife and rinse out the seeds.

Cut the cheese into strips and chunks that will fit inside the squash blossoms and peppers, and slip the cheese inside. Twist the tips of the petals to close the cheese inside.  If you are using soft goat cheese, spoon the cheese into the cavity in the blossoms and peppers.

Lightly butter or oil a baking dish. Arrange the peppers and blossoms (I alternated them to make them fit AND make them look prettier.)

Beat the eggs and salt and pour them over the peppers and blossoms in the baking dish.

Grate or sprinkle a little cheese over the top. Bake until the eggs have just puffed and set in the center of the dish, about—— and the cheese is lightly golden on top.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool and set for 5 minutes or so before cutting.

Corn and Black Bean Chiles Rellenos

I love those puffy crisp chile rellenos covered with their golden eggy batter, deep fried, filled with oozing cheese and served with a scoop of salsa. If a restaurant or cook can make that dish well, without being soggy or bland or greasy, they have my respect and admiration.

It wouldn’t be wise for me to indulge in that particular version of the chile relleno very often though. They’re a little too rich for everyday (or every week) consumption and they are time-consuming to make well. But “relleno” just means “filled” or “stuffed” in Spanish so I make my version with poblanos baked and filled with vegetables and just a little cheese. It’s satisfying without being too heavy and a lovely way to enjoy more peak summer corn and chiles.

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The only fiddly thing about this recipe is charring the peppers to remove the skin. I’ve made a lot of stuffed peppers of all types over the years and I cannot make one that I like if I don’t start with a somewhat cooked pepper. The timing of cooking is always off somehow, the pepper is still crunchy when the filling is disintegrating or the filling gets watery from the liquid that the pepper releases while cooking. So bear with me and try charring the peppers at least once.

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Dicing the vegetables into somewhat uniform pieces makes for a better bite; the combination of a fork-full of sweet peppers, creamy black beans, and the pop of sweet corn and salty cheese all at once is better than stabbing at lots of disparate chunks.

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I also like to add a little cheese to the filling right before I stuff the peppers. It adds a little bit of tang and richness and the fat brings the flavors in the filling together. If you live somewhere that has good salty crumbly fresh Mexican Cheese available, use that, but I have used feta and fresh chèvre when I can’t find the Mexican cheese and the flavor works well.

Since cilantro can be such a polarizing flavor, I’ve omitted it from this recipe but if you like cilantro, stir some torn leaves in with the cheese.

The amounts in this recipe can be adjusted according to the size of the poblanos. Think of it more in terms of proportions rather than exact measurements.

Corn and Black Bean Chiles Rellenos

4-6 poblano chiles

oil

1 medium red onion

1 red sweet pepper

1/2 jalapeño, seeded

1 1/2 cups corn kernels

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin

salt to taste

1 large ripe tomato

1 1/2 cooked black beans, rinsed and drained.

3 ounces fresh cheese such as cotija, feta, or chèvre

First, char the poblanos, either on a grill, on the burner of a gas stove, or under a broiler. Turn to blacken the skin evenly. When the chiles are blistered all over, put them in a bowl with a plate to cover them to steam a little and cool down to the point they can be handled. Pick the blackened skin off the outside, although this is not the time for perfection, a little of the char left behind adds flavor.

Prepare the filling: dice the onion, peppers and tomato into pieces not too much larger than the beans and corn. This will help the ingredients cook evenly.

In a large skillet, heat a splash of oil to a shimmer. Add the onion and peppers and sauté for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Add the corn kernels and spices and raise the heat, stirring to let the corn caramelize a little. Lower the heat and gently stir in the tomatoes and beans. Once they have warmed, remove the pan from the heat and set aside. Stir in 3/4 or so of the cheese, trying to keep it in chunks.

Heat the oven to 300

Make a slit down the side of each poblano and scoop and rinse the seeds out. Place the, slit side up in a baking dish that just holds the peppers without a lot of room to spare. Spoon the vegetable filling into the poblanos, filling them generously and pouring any accumulated juices over the pan. Crumble the rest of the cheese over the top and bake for about 15 minutes.

Serve with rice and a drizzle of chipotle salsa roja (if you like).

Sweet Corn Poblano Soup

It doesn’t really feel like summer to me until I’ve had my first ear of sweet corn on the cob. I can eat an outrageous number of buttered, hot, crisp, sweet ears, shearing the kernels off the cob like Mickey and Donald eating it typewriter style.

Fortunately, July hasn’t only brought us a super humid heat wave (hello window AC unit!), it also brought us summer corn season, just in time for the long July 4th weekend.

This light summery soup is a lovely way to enjoy the good fresh flavor of sweet corn. It’s lighter than some creamy chowder style soups,  finished with just a little bit of milk, but the trick of using a corn cob broth that I picked up from David Walbert’s delicious corn chowder post infuses the soup with the flavor of corn without muddling the bright vegetable flavors.

I also use a little bit of corn flour, cooked into the broth like a very thin porridge to thicken the soup without making it too rich and heavy. Soup eaten in summer should be light and fresh, satisfying without weighing down.

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Sweet Corn and Poblano Soup

4 ears sweet corn on the cob, husked and flossed

1 red onion (or other sweet onion)

2 cloves garlic

1 poblano chile

olive oil

1/3 cup corn flour

1/4-1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

4 cups water

salt

1 cup milk

Stand each ear of corn stalk-side down on a cutting board and cut the kernels from the cob. Break the cleaned cobs in pieces and put them in a medium pot. Once all of the corn kernels are cut off the cobs and the cobs are put into the pot, cover the cobs with about 4 cups of water, a generous pinch of salt, and cover the pot with a heavy lid. Simmer the cobs in water for about 30 minutes. Remove and throw the cobs away.

Meanwhile, dice the onion and poblano and mince the garlic.

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium/low heat. Add the onion, garlic and poblano to the oil and cook until the onion begins to soften and become translucent. Add the corn and stir, then add a pinch of salt. The sugar in the corn will begin to stick and caramelize on the bottom of the pan, so watch the heat to prevent that sugar from burning. Once the corn begins to soften, scrape the vegetables to the side of the pan and pour in a little more oil, maybe a teaspoon, to cook the spices. Pour the chipotle, coriander, and cumin into the oil and stir. Once the spices become fragrant, stir them into the vegetables. Scrape any sticky browned bits off the bottom of the pan.

Once the corn is softened and beginning to caramelize  but still a little bit crisp, stir about 1/3 cup of corn flour (finely ground corn meal) into the vegetables. Stir everything over medium heat just for a minute until the corn flour is slightly toasted.

Carefully pour the corn cob stock into the pan with the vegetables and stir to prevent lumps. Bring to a simmer and stir until the corn flour thickens the broth. Add the milk and simmer for 10 minutes or so to combine the flavors.

Salt to taste.

As with most soups, this one improves after a night in the fridge, so feel free to make it ahead. It will be even better that way.

A note on corn flour:

Corn flour is just a finely ground corn meal. In the UK, corn flour is the term used for what I call corn starch which is often used to thicken clear sauces. American corn flour is a little more substantial but finer than the grittier texture of corn meal. I typically use Bob’s Red Mill Corn Flour

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Chipotle Salsa Roja

For a classically trained chef (in the French tradition, which is what most of us think of when we hear that term) there is a foundational canon of techniques, sauces, stocks, and cooking “systems” like mis en place that form the elements from which many meals are built. For a home cook like me, a streamlined version of this approach is how I cook without recipes. If I can make a good stock, my risotto, soups, and braises will be delicious and richly flavorful. If I can make an emulsion, I can make mayonnaise,  béarnaise and hollandaise sauces.  Making a roux is the first step to bechamel (and then mac and cheese) or to gumbo.

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The globalization of food cultures, particularly in the great American melting pot, means that now home cooks can borrow  foundational elements, not just from classic European chefs, but from the kitchens of great cooks all over the world. I grew up in Atlanta when I was in a small minority that ate soy sauce, tofu, tangy plain yogurt, and stir fries, and yet maybe 10 years ago, I saw a three-year old in a supermarket in Atlanta pitching a fit for his mom to open his tray of sushi. There are 10 different kinds of hummus and salsa in any given grocery store. We are familiar with pesto, curry,  tom yum soup and enchiladas, tzatziki and tagliatelle and paella, at least by name.

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The problem that I find with this accumulation of cultural wealth is that the definitions of these foods are often narrowed to a single version, often created for mass appeal rather than for its integrity to the original recipe. I don’t think there is always a black and white “right or wrong” way to cook something, but we’ll all eat better when we know the difference between a Cool Ranch Doritos Taco Bell taco and a barbacoa taco on a fresh sort corn tortilla. Culinary appropriation doesn’t necessarily bother me – I think it’s one place where borrowing and adapting between cultures makes sense and is more beneficial than not- but I regret when the definitions of a food become so assimilated into the tastes of aggregate culture that they become pale ghosts of the original.

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Salsa is one of these ubiquitous foods that I think has suffered from translation. Until relatively recently, the best salsa I could find in big supermarkets was pressured sealed (so very very cooked) tomato sauce with a tiny hint of onion, maybe a little pepper, cumin, or cilantro. Even fresh salsa is usually really pico de gallo or salsa fresca, a chopped tomato relish with onions, jalapenos, and cilantro. Obviously, I love tomato salsa, make it all the time, but as I once said to someone who posited that you should be able to find good Mexican food wherever good tomatoes are grown, equating good Mexican food to the availability of good tomatoes is like equating good Chinese food to the availability of baby corn. Mexican cuisines are much more tied to chiles than to tomatoes. Go to any taqueria and check out the condiments. There with the pickled vegetables, radishes, and pico de gallo, you’ll find a variety of chile based salsa, each reflecting the flavor profile of the different types of chiles used (as well as their heat levels).

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Drying chiles is a common and practical method of food preservation. When our garden in California was producing 20 pounds of serranos and poblanos week, our house was strung with garlands of ripening and drying chiles, trays of chiles in a very low oven to get the last moisture out of them so I could put them in jars. And every time I open a jar of these chiles, I get a wave of  deep, spicy, dusty berry fragrance.

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This is one of my favorite chile salsa, one of the “mother sauces” I have in my repertoire.  It’s a versatile condiment and sauce I use for chips, as enchilada sauce, to cook with eggs, or to mix into a bowl of beans.

The basic technique is the key, and easily adapted to your favorite chiles. This chart is great for dried chile basics and can help if you want to change it up for different uses. I like the smokiness of chipotles on just about everything, so this is my favorite basic recipe.

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Salsa Roja

Dried Chile Salsa

5 Ancho chiles (dried poblanos)

4 chiles California or Seco del Norte or Guajillo chiles

3 Serrano chiles

2-3 chipotles (canned in adobo or dried)

Boiling water

4-5 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1-2 tablespoons oil

Sea or kosher salt

Break up the chiles into large pieces, removing the stems. You can remove the seeds or leave them for a little extra heat. Put them into a heatproof bowl, like a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup and cover with enough boiling water to make about 2 cups total. Use a plate, sieve or strainer to hold the chiles under water to soak for at least 20 minutes, until they have softened and rehydrated.

Pour the water and chiles into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic and Mexican oregano. Process until the mixture is smooth, breaking down the pieces of chile. Pour the mixture into a sieve over a large bowl and use a rubber spatula to scrape and press the mixture through the sieve; this will remove the seeds and the thin tough skin from the chiles. Once all of the liquid and pulp has passed through the mesh you will be left with a dry paste of seeds and skin, which can be thrown away.

Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle, carefully pour the chile puree into the oil and stir to blend. Bring the chiles to a low boil, stir to mix with the oil and reduce slightly the water in the salsa (you should be able to run your finger through it on the back of a spoon and it leave a line without running immediately). Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Salt to taste.

Pour the salsa into a jar and allow it to cool and the flavors to meld- overnight is best. Keep in a jar in the refrigerator indefinitely.

I throw this together at the last-minute when I’m headed out the door for a long day at work and I want something fast and hearty for breakfast:

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olive oil

2 eggs

salt

2 tablespoons salsa roja

2-3 corn tortillas

crumbly cheese like cotija or feta.

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a small non stick skillet for a minute. Crack two eggs into the oil, sprinkle with salt and dollop the salsa over the eggs. cover the eggs with the tortillas where they will warm and wilt with the heat of the eggs while acting as a lid so the eggs will cook more quickly. I leave them for 2-3 minutes to get a set egg white and a runny yolk. Place a plate over the skillet and flip the skillet over on top of the plate. crumble the cheese on top and dig in. If you aren’t in too much of a hurry, diced avocado is also a great addition.

Okra Part 2: Maque Choux

My last post was for okra cooked whole, a good way to enjoy okra without any of the “slime” factor. Once you cut into okra, like aloe vera, the mucilage starts to seep out. Adding liquid for a braised or stewed dish enhances this seepage. There are a lot of tricks and techniques that people say will prevent this from happening – cut it in thin slices, cut it as little as possible, sear in with high heat, don’t add any liquid, just to name a few.

 My approach is to just go with it: okra contains mucilage, mucilage is slimy, so rather than try to change the nature of okra, I try to make this quality work for me. Okra is commonly used in gumbo as a “thickener”, a term which I don’t think is entirely accurate, or maybe just isn’t the most complete or descriptive term for what okra does for gumbo. I would say that it adds body to the broth.

 I’ll explain what I mean in terms of chicken stock: good gelatin-filled stock slips over the tongue silkily and substantially, filling the mouth with the essence of its ingredients, rich but never greasy.  The richness of a good homemade stock is not from fat but from the cartilage that has been slowly broken down and infused into the liquid. Okra has much the same effect, not creamy or thick, but lip-smacking.

 Gumbo is the obvious and most common way to take advantage of okra’s bodyfying qualities. I have, however posted a couple of gumbos here on the blog, so I’ll branch out and share another favorite: maque choux (mok shoo). Maque choux is like a succotash where the lima beans are replaced by okra. It is a fresh braise of corn, okra, tomato, onion, and peppers. The crispness of corn kernels and acidity in the tomatoes balance the tenderness of the okra. So to make a silky braised okra dish, balance the proportions of ingredients so that the okra doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the vegetables, add some acid (tomatoes), and cook the dish just long enough to get through the slimy stage to a richly flavored but light bright vegetable dish. It’s a perfect summertime side dish for fish or fried chicken (and yes, I know it’s September, sorry. Check back next year?)

 One of the tricks I use for this dish, I picked up from David Walbert’s brilliant chowder recipe: *after stripping the kernels, break the cobs in half and just barely submerge them in a pot or water. Cover the pot and bring it to a simmer for about 20 minutes, or about as long as it takes to prep everything else. All of the flavor that was left in the cob will infuse the water to make the corniest broth you’ve ever tasted. I prefer not to add a lot of water when I cook vegetables, but with all of the natural sugar in the vegetables, it can get pretty thick and sticky. The corn broth adds nice flavor and loosens up the mixture with out watering down the vegetables.

 Also of note: green bell peppers are probably the traditional choice for this dish. I just prefer almost any other pepper to green bells. I don’t think they have a lot of flavor and I also prefer a little heat, so I usually use a combination of poblano and serrano chiles. If you like other varieties better than the ones I use, they will work perfectly well. Feel free to improvise.

And a final note: if you live somewhere where it is difficult to find okra, this one will work very well with frozen okra. I like to get pods frozen whole and cut them up myself, but sliced is fine.

 

Maque Choux

serves 4

2-3 tablespoons oil (or half oil and half bacon grease, if you’re so inclined)

1 medium white onion, diced

2 poblano chiles, diced

1 serrano chile, minced

2 cup sliced okra

3 ears of corn, kernels removed, cob reserved for broth

2 cups diced tomato with their juice

*Corn broth as needed

Salt

Cayenne pepper if desired

Prepare all of your ingredients and start the corn broth.

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the oil and or bacon grease until it shimmers. You need just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add the onions and chiles and a pinch of salt and sauté until they begin to soften and become fragrant, 5-7 minutes. Add the okra, tomatoes, and corn and another pinch of salt, which will help the vegetables release their water and keep them from sticking as much. Cover the pan and let it simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally; the okra will start to look “stringy”but the acid in the tomato juice will begin to break that down and melt it into the sauce. Add about ½ cup of corn broth at a time if the vegetables begin sticking to the pan. Once the okra no longer looks stringy, taste test to see if the vegetables are tender. It will probably take 15 minutes or so, but the main thing is to get them past the stringy stage with enough liquid in the pan to make it a loose but not soupy mixture while removing them from the heat before the vegetables become mushy. Salt to taste and add a pinch of cayenne if you like it spicy.

Chili con Carne

I did something heinous to my back about a week and a half ago, one of those things where you lean forward and when you straighten back up, you want to die, so I spent about a week lying very still and thinking gloomy thoughts about my mortality and the effects of aging on the skeletal system. In the process of all of this mulling, I came to a realization that while I am not a “world-beater” personality, I really hate being unproductive, so while I’m doing much better but not quite 100%, I’m happy to be back on my feet to potter around the house and making occasional short trips down to the river. Today I took advantage of my forced indolence to make one of my favorite winter meals for this weekend – chili con carne.

It’s probably a good idea for me to define my terms here before I get into the particulars of how I make this. Chili is one of those things that inflame the passions of purists and sticklers who claim that adding anything besides meat and chiles is heretical. I read a comment online recently where someone said of a vegetarian chili recipe that “you can call it a spicy bean soup, but don’t call it true chili”. But as I am no such food fundamentalist,  I unashamedly adulterate “true” chili con carne by adding beans and tomatoes because I like it that way. I like a rich, spicy, thick, beefy chili, with creamy beans and a little tomato to brighten and sweeten the sauce.

But really, chili con carne is all about the chiles. When we lived in California and I was growing and drying a variety of chiles in our garden, I began to appreciate their nuanced flavors and the ability to combine them into a “custom” chile powder. I love their earthy, spicy, berry fragrance when I open the container where all my chiles are stored.  The Mexican supermarkets in Concord had bins filled with ancho, New Mexico, cayenne, California, and guajillo chiles. It is these chiles that are the basis for a lot of Mexican salsas and sauces, like red enchilada sauce, and they are the flavor basis for chili con carne.

This link has a good guide for chile varieties, including substitutions and heat levels

For my chili powder, I use a mixture of ancho (which is dried poblano), serrano, California or New Mexico chiles, and a chipotle (dried smoked jalapeño) that I grind myself. The serranos add some heat, but the other two are just earthy, rich and should have a nice dried berry smell. Chipotle adds a bit of heat and a deep smoky flavor. If you don’t want to grind your own powder, I still encourage you to try to blend a couple of different good, freshly ground chiles rather than using the standard chili powder. If you think about chiles as berries, think about the difference between dried cherries and dried blueberries. They each bring something unique to the flavor of the dish, which you can control to your taste when you make your own blend. Penzeys is a good online source and they carry ground ancho and chipotle.

Another of my chili quirks is that I buy a whole chuck roast and mince it myself with my biggest, sharpest knife. It is usually hard to find “chili grind” beef and I prefer the texture of tender little chunks of beef. The regular hamburger grind seems to either disappear into the sauce or else stay a little rubbery. I just like the control that chopping it myself gives me since it also allows me to trim out gristly bits and big chunks of fat. This step is totally optional – you’ll still have a great bowl of chili without hand-chopping the meat, but try it at least once and see what you think.

The ingredients, in order of use-

-1.5 lbs ground or minced beef chuck

– oil to cook the onions

– 2 chopped medium onions

– 5 or 6 cloves minced garlic

– pinch of salt

– 6 Tablespoons chile powder

(about 6 ancho, 3 California, 3 serrano, and 1 chipotle)

– 2 teaspoons ground cumin

– 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano or a pinch of Italian oregano

– 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes

If you use whole dried chiles to make your own chile powder as do I, turn on the oven to about 350°. Put all of your chiles into a cast iron skillet or sheet pan and toast for about 5 minutes until they become very fragrant, then take them out and give them a couple of minutes to cool off enough to handle. Tear the stem ends off the chiles, shake out all of the seeds, and tear them into pieces. Grind the chiles into a powder in a small coffee grinder.

Brown the meat in batches over high heat and then remove from the pot and set aside. Add a little oil to the pot and sauté the onions. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt and use the water that they release to scrape up the sticky brown bits that the meat has left in the bottom of the pot. Once the onion has begun to soften, stir in the minced garlic and cook over medium to low heat. When the onions and garlic have softened, stir the chili powder and other spices and stir until the onions are coated with chile powder. There should be enough oil for it to get moist and toast/fry the chili powder and spices.

Add the meat and any accumulated juices back into the pot. Then add:

-3 or 4 cups cooked pink beans or small red beans. If you cook dried beans for the chili, use the cooking liquid in the chili. If you prefer to use canned beans, drain them and use a little extra water instead.

-1  28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, with the juice

-2 bay leaves

– Add water, chicken or beef broth, just to make it loose, not soupy, about 3 cups

Cover with the pot lid, leaving just a crack, and let it burble quietly over low heat for an hour or so, until the meat is tender.  Longer is fine, but keep the heat low and enough liquid in the pot so it doesn’t stick and  scorch on the bottom. The acid in the tomatoes will keep the beans from softening much more than they are, so a long simmer shouldn’t hurt them.

Taste for salt, maybe add a dash cayenne if you want it spicier. It’s better to make it a day ahead of time, say on a Saturday before a big football game or something like that.

I usually serve it with a sprinkle raw chopped onions on top and of course, it’s great with cornbread!

Cheating Winter: Canned Tomato Salsa

 

A couple of days ago, I was going through a purse that I haven’t used since we moved and came across a menu from Primavera, a vendor at the Ferry Building Farmers Market in San Francisco. I had the best chilaquiles I’ve ever had there last year, one sunny Saturday beside the bay. Looking down at the menu in my hand, I was first overwhelmed by a wave of home-sickening nostalgia and then by a craving for something spicy, something Mexican……salsa.  But I haven’t had the easiest time finding the kind of Mexican ingredients that were ubiquitous in California, like nopal and tomatillos and chiles and steamy-fresh tender corn tortillas and innumerable varieties of salsa. And then, it’s still Winter here, yes, the bare edge, but tomatoes still have the taste, fragrance, and texture of nerf balls, and I haven’t seen a fresh serrano in a grocery store in a long time.

So I went back to a recipe I’ve used for years, a salsa made with canned tomatoes, one of those “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” recipes; I also grabbed a few of the  serranos from our garden that we dried last year. This recipe makes a bright and flavorful, respectable, craving-satisfying, fresh tasting, tortilla chip-coating  salsa that also goes very nicely with pinto beans, on a taco, or can be used to gently steam/fry eggs for huevos rancheros.

 

Tomato Salsa

1 jalapeño

3 dried serranos

2 scallions

1/4 cup cilantro leaves (or not, if you’re a hater)

pinch Mexican oregano

about 1 teaspoon salt

1 large clove garlic

1- 14 ounce can diced tomatoes

 

 

Blacken and blister the jalapeño, either under the broiler or over the flame of a gas stove until every inch is charred. After letting it cool down, scrape as much of the skin off as you can without going crazy, this is no time to be fussy. De-seed and finely mince the jalapeño. Finely mince the serranos, scallions and garlic. I use a microplane grater for the garlic, which basically renders the garlic clove a paste. If you don’t loath cilantro, coarsely chop the leaves. Once all of the ingredients are prepared, mix them with the tomato. Add the salt and Mexican oregano (which has an earthier, less minty flavor than Italian or Greek oregano). I like to crumble the leaves between my fingers before adding it- it helps the herb incorporate more easily and makes my hands smell good.

 

 

Use either a blender, food processor, or immersion blender to just lightly crush the tomatoes and mix everything together well. I like a slightly chunky salsa, but blitz to your own personal preference. Although it is very respectable tasting immediately, the flavors will marry and improve with time, so try to save some for tomorrow.

 

Cold comfort- Black Beans and Rice

It’s the end of January and I haven’t slept in my own bed in over six weeks. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve slept in the same bed for more than three nights in a row in the past six weeks. It’s been a cold winter so far, even here in the South, and I feel myself reaching back in my memory for the comforting foods that I’ve had all my life, that have sustained and warmed and satisfied.

 

 

Black beans are one of my very favorite things to eat. With rice, they have been a comfort meal for me through thick and thin. I remember my mom making black bean and smoked turkey chili on a wood stove when Hurricane Opal buried us under oak limbs and power lines. I’ve been making my own versions of black beans and rice, adapted to the season, throughout my adult life. With a golden lace of olive oil on the surface, a chile-infused pot of black beans warms and fills the belly without weighing the body down with regret. It is a virtuous indulgence, to me anyway. An inky, brothy bowlful makes me feel at home wherever I am.

 

Black Beans and Rice

Soak 1 pound of black beans overnight covered  with lots of  water.

Or, you can do a quick soak by covering the beans with plenty of water in a pot, bringing it all to a boil for about 2 minutes and then allowing it to sit off the heat, covered, for about an hour.

 

 

2 -3 roasted and peeled poblanos

2 serranos, minced

1 chipotle, either dried or canned in adobo (if you want a smoky flavor)

Or, a red bell pepper, roasted and peeled (I have used the jarred kind)

1 large onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano, crumbled between your fingers

Pinch of thyme

1 bay leaf

Oil

Chicken broth, low salt or salt free, or water

Salt

Kombu (optional) or nopalitos (also optional, and I would get them already de-spiked and sliced)

 

Drain the soaked beans. Re-cover with water or chicken broth (or a combination) by about 2 inches. It is important not to salt the beans at this point, because salt can make it difficult to get the beans to soften. Add the whole piece of kombu to the liquid, if you are using that. Cover and bring the pot to a low simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Test a bean for tenderness. They should still have a bit of “bite” to them when the aromatics are added. One way to test is to smush a bean between your fingers; it should still give a little resistance at this point, but not feel like a pebble. Keep the liquid covering the beans and continue to check every 10 minutes or so. When the beans are soft, fish out the kombu, cut it up into small pieces and return the bits to the pot.

 

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute’ the onions until most of the liquid has cooked out and they are tender but not brown, salting them with a couple of generous pinches of salt. Add the garlic and the spices, stirring it all together to toast the spices. Add the chopped peppers and nopalitos if that’s how you decide to roll, and cook just until the serranos and cactus begin to soften.

 

Scrape  the hot vegetables into the pot with the beans and add more liquid if needed to keep everything covered. Simmer very low- what you want to do at this point is to infuse the beans as they finish softening; a higher temperature will just bash them to mush. After the flavors have all mingled for 10 minutes or so, taste a spoonful and see if you want a little more salt. Continue to simmer until the beans have reached your preferred tenderness. Serve with a scoop of rice.

 

 

I like the flavor of  the chilis I listed but have used just red bell peppers and jalapeños before. Peeling the larger peppers like poblano and bells is important because otherwise there are bits of the cellophane-like outer skin floating annoyingly around amongst  the beans. Nothing tasty about getting that stuck in the back of your throat. And if you don’t have any Mexican oregano, which seems a little sagey-er, use a little pinch of Italian oregano instead.

 

 

Kristen’s boys called this recipe “Special Sauce.”

It’s kind of like a raita, adding a cool crisp contrasting flavor to a sometimes spicy meal:

 

About 1 cup sour cream

1 minced cucumber (scrape out the seeds first if they are big)

3 minced whole scallions

Salt

 

Stir together and allow the flavors to mingle for 20 minutes or so. Add a spoonful to the beans and rice. It is so, so good.