Welcome – And Thank You

Well, it appears that NPRs A Way With Words replayed the episode I was blessed to be featured on – that happened a good while back, and a couple of worlds away from where I am now. Nonetheless, I am thrilled and honored to see so many of you climb aboard recently as a result.

UrbanMonique is a labor of love that’s been around for quite a few spins, and it does so because I still love what I do here, and because y’all stay tuned.

I want to say thank you and welcome. My Pace is a bit slower these days, because my world has changed. That said, there are many years of posts here, and I truly hope you’ll dive in and have a look. I try very hard to post weekly, and when I do, you’ll get notice thereof.

in the meantime, as I’ve said a lot here, if you have a question, or a desire, or a need that I have not addressed, please let me know. I love to cook, I love to share, and I trust you do too. So again, thank you, and let’s boogie.

Wendy Kiang-Spray’s The Chinese Kitchen Garden

Wendy Kiang-Spray is another social media friend – I confess I don’t recall exactly how we met, but once I saw her book, The Chinese Kitchen Garden, I snagged it, devoured it, and have been enjoying it immensely ever since, and so will you.

As Wendy notes, ‘The Chinese Kitchen Garden is my first book and is an amalgamation of all my loves: family, cultural stories, gardening, heritage vegetables, and cooking.  Through writing this book, I’ve also found a way to record and share with you many of my favorite recipes from my mom’s weeknight stir-fry, to her spicy Sichuan peppercorn quick pickles, to one of my favorite taro and coconut desserts.’

The recipes are delightful, and the gardening tips and strategies are priceless. This is not a coffee table book, although the images are truly lovely- This is a book you’ll use in kitchen and garden for years to come – one you’ll fill with notes, and refer back to frequently – especially as the seasons change.

What got me thinking about her work was a post of hers that you see below – the question and answer hit home, as our corner of the world finally starts to turn toward Spring. We had a delightful followup chat about growing asparagus and spring gardening, and I felt compelled to share her wonderful work with y’all.

Clearly, the answer to her question is – that gorgeous, fresh stuff on the right of the image. What that represents – our opportunity to work with and in our own gardens, is the siren song of this lovely season. May yours be bountiful and joyous.

Spring is Here – Time to Clean Freezers & Grills

For 25 points, identify the following protein:

Didn’t think so…

Spring is the perfect time for deep cleaning. Shaking off the dust and cold and mold of winter, letting fresh air in – We do it to our homes, (hopefully), and we need to do it to our freezers as well.

Whether you’ve got a combo fridge/freezer, or a big ol’stand alone unit, it’s time to thoroughly clean that beast, inventory what’s there with a critical eye, toss what needs to be tossed and cook what must be cooked before that too goes to the great beyond.

This line of reasoning naturally brooks the question, “Can food go bad in the freezer?” The answer to which is a definite ‘Yup!’

Keep in mind that freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast, mold, etc –  it just pretty much keeps them from multiplying. If there was something funky present prior to freezing, it could indeed reappear when thawed. Additionally, freezing does not do any favors for food quality or taste – over time, great stuff will become good and good stuff becomes that image up yonder.

When does quality starts to degrade? That depends on what it is, and how well it was packaged, frankly. For answers to this and other freezer questions, hop on over to the USDA’s Food Safety site and read for yourself. You’ll also find the National Center For Home Food Preservation a wealth of good info.

In general terms, anything that looks like the image above – an obvious victims of freezer burn – needs to go. If flesh looks substantially different than it usually does when thawed, (Darker, off color, dried out, etc), then give it the heave ho. Trust me when I say if it looks funky, it’ll taste funky, and it could well be dangerous.

When you package for freezing, head back to the NCHFP site and read up on best practices.

The time to clear out your freezer is also the time to clean; this should be done at least annually. The best time do the deed is when stocks are low – AKA, the end of winter.

Pull everything out and put it into a fridge or cooler(s) while you clean.

Turn off, unplug, and thoroughly defrost your unit.

Once it’s to room temp, clean the insides thoroughly; I like a bleach solution for the job, but dish soap and water works fine too. Remove and clean all the shelves, racks, drawers, etc as well.

Do a rinse wipe with a solution of 2 Tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, then wipe that down with a clean, dry cloth.

Don’t forget the unseen parts – Pull the freezer from its normal locale and clean underneath. Inspect the back and clean that and the top, and dust the coils if your unit has exposed ones.

Optimal freezer temp for food storage is -15ºF to -5ºF; it should never go above 15ºF for any extended length of time.

Fire ‘er back up, let it get fully cold and then put your bounty back in – and mark your calendar for the same time next year.

Does your grill look something like this after a winters slumber? Time to get after that before you fire up for the first time.

Open up and remove the grill grates. If you’ve got a gas rig, disconnect the fuel from the grill, remove the flame deflectors and burners from the grill body. Remove all old briquettes, burned whatever, and scrape as much grease and char off as you can by hand.

For the deep cleaning, you’ll need a grill brush, a heavy duty sponge, a scrubby pad and steel wool, a bucket of hot, soapy water, another of hot, clean water, some rags, and some degreaser. I recommend Simple Green, it’s effective and environmentally sound.

Have at the entire grill with the degreaser first, allowing it some working time before you scrub. Move onto the soapy water, then the rinse, until your grill looks as close to new as you can get it. FYI, if you’re a heavy user, a mid-season cleaning won’t hurt. Thoroughly clean every component, including the grates. A seasoned grill is a good thing, but excessive grease and char build up can lead to flaring, burning and off-putting flavors in your food. A clean grill will last far longer than a dirty one as well.

Kick the Tires & Light the Fires
Now give your grill a point by point, detailed inspection of every component. Check grill and charcoal grates for rust, rot or missing and chipped porcelain. After they’re clean, dry, and inspected, you’ll re-season them. Check your framework and lid to make sure they’re all sound and there are no nuts, bolts, struts, or wheels missing or damaged.

If you use a gas grill, check your tank, valve, line, regulator, burners and flame deflectors to make sure they’re clean and sound. Don’t screw around with gas parts; if they’re rotted or badly rusted, replace them. At the least, your grill will cook poorly; at worst, you could have a genuine explosion or fire hazard brewing. If you need parts, Home Depot carries quite a few, and of course there’s probably a local supplier not to far from most of us.

When you’re ready to rock, season your grates prior to first use. Soak some paper towels with cooking oil and thoroughly rub all surfaces of the grates. Turn on the gas or light a small charcoal fire and heat the grill to high with the cover open until the oil burns off. Now turn the heat down to low and let the grill work for about fifteen minutes or, (or until your charcoal expires).

Let the grill cool down, then wipe the grates down and reapply a thin coating of fresh oil; those last steps are always a good idea after grilling, to prepare for your next session and extend the life of the grates by making sure rust doesn’t form.

Now your grill is ready to rock and roll but… Got fuel? It’s the first thing we need and the first one we forget on friday night when we step out the back door with a platter of steaks. Inspect any charcoal, smoking or seasoning woods and pellets, and gas tanks left over from last season. If any of your briquettes or woods got soaked, you’re OK if they retained their shape and what soaked them was just water. Set affected fuel out to dry and repackage as needed after they’re ready to go.

While we’re on the subject of charcoal, avoid instant light products and charcoal lighter fluid like the plague. It’s bad enough that the stuff contains things you don’t want to feed your family, and even worse that they absolutely ruin the flavor of good food. Get yourself a lighting chimney that works off scrap paper and use that; it’s just as fast, far cheaper, and makes better food.

Finally, charcoal quality does count. Crappy generic charcoal is the equivalent of mystery meat hot dogs; you’ve got no idea what’s in there and it’s likely none of it is good. High quality lump charcoal heats better, longer and more consistently, and that too means better food.

Easy Eggs Benedict at Home – No, Really

It’s the youngest’s Birthday, and he’s up for a visit, so I offered several options for breakfast – he landed on Eggs Benedict. It’s also Palm Sunday, which means that this weekend and certainly next, a lot of folks are gonna think about going out for a special breakfast, and often enough, for the same dish. That’s all the reason you should need to make it at home.

Few breakfast dishes are more celebrated than Eggs Benedict. This is as it should be, because when done well, there are few things more delightful. And yet they’re rarely done at home, due to the assumption that they’re a royal pain in the ass to make. They’re really not if you go in understanding what you’re gonna do and have a pretty simple mis en place ready – do that, and they can and will be pretty easy.

There’s a couple versions of Benedict that claim to be the original out there. What’s generally agreed to is that it is an 19th century American dish and that hollandaise is involved. I was raised believing in the Lemuel Benedict version, named after a retired stockbroker with a hangover who wobbled in to the legendary Waldorf one morning in the late nineteenth century and ordered toast, bacon, poached eggs, and hollandaise. The Maître d’ on duty liked the idea and put it on the menu, subbing English muffin for toast and ham for the bacon.

The competing ‘original’ Benedict came from Elias Cornelius Benedict, a New York City banker – his version included a mixture of chopped, hard boiled eggs and minced ham topped with hollandaise. 

With this post as an excuse, we tried both versions. We found them both delish, but it was agreed that Lemuel’s version is best. In any event, it’s quite obvious who has won at least the popular vote, if not the naming rights.

There’s a boatload of variants, from Florentine to mournay and Chesapeake to Hebridean. As far as I’m concerned, any variant is still Benedict so long as it involves eggs, bread and hollandaise.

So why does the dish have such a bad rep for home kitchens? The overall sense of fussiness and time pressure when constructing the dish, (largely due to a broad belief that you must make the hollandaise last), and mixed results when poaching eggs are the top complaints.

What you’ll find here does away with all that, and produces consistent, pretty results. We’ll build the hollandaise first, with a grounding in how and why it works, which makes for an unfussy, unhurried brunch. We’ll also deploy a skillet instead of a sauce pan to poach – that way you can clearly see how your eggs are cooking and have a much easier time with assembly.

First a bit about hollandaise. This is an emulsion, not much different than salad dressing in what we’re after getting it to do for us. The egg yolks we’ll use are basically protein rich water, and butter is our fat.

Successful hollandaise involves giving egg yolks, a little water, and lemon juice the time and gentle heat needed to allow us to gradually add butter and end up with a delicious, stable emulsion.

A couple tablespoons of water isn’t much, but it’s key to allowing the proteins in the yolks to relax. For the life of me I can’t understand recipes that omit it. Acids like lemon juice or vinegar also help relax yolk proteins, but the real protagonist here is gentle heat, with a strong emphasis on gentle.

Heating that mixture too much or too fast is the top cause of Hollandaise failure for home cooks. I’ll have you use far less heat than most recipes, and none if it direct -that’ll solve the overcooking problem. The indirect, (mostly steam), heat in the double boiler, coupled with the latent heat of the melted butter is more than sufficient to get the job done. Here’s how you do it.

Painless Hollandaise

4 large, fresh Egg Yolks

1/2 Cup fresh Butter

2 Tablespoons Cold Water

2 teaspoons fresh Lemon Juice

2-3 shakes Tabasco Sauce

Separate eggs. Place whites in an airtight container and refrigerate or freeze for future projects.

Put about 2″ of water in a sauce pan sized such that a mixing bowl or double boiler will fit within. You want the bottom of the bowl you’ll work in to be above the water by a good 2″. Not doing this right is a primary cause of failed hollandaise – Too much heat, and/or heating too fast.

Turn heat to medium low.

In a separate sauce pan, melt butter over medium low heat.

When the water starts to simmer, turn off the heat.

In a small mixing bowl, combine egg yolks, water, and lemon juice.

Whisk briskly by hand to combine, until blend thickens and the volume has increased notably, about 2 minutes.

Place bowl over the hot water pan.

Gently but steadily whisk the egg yolk mixture to heat it through, about 1 – 2 minutes.

Begin slowly adding butter in a thin stream; add a few seconds worth, whisking gently but constantly, until the yolk mixture has incorporated the butter, then add a little more, and keep doing so until all the butter is absorbed.

The sauce will thicken somewhat, but possibly not as much as you like it to end up, but don’t sweat that point; as the sauce sits while you prep the rest of the dish, it’ll thicken a bit more.

Whisk in the Tabasco, then set the whole double boiler rig on the back of your oven, and cover with a clean towel.

What to do if your Hollandaise breaks – It’s gonna happen some day, so just accept that and be prepared. It’s not the end of the world, and you can fix it, so – deep breath! Broken hollendaise looks like oil with little bits of egg in it – fear not. Grab a small spoon and snag a little hot water from your double boiling rig. Add a couple of those to the hollandaise and slowly, steadily whisk it in. Add a couple more and repeat. You can go as high as 25% of the volume of your sauce, but you probably won’t need to. Be patient – keep adding a couple small spoons of hot water and whisk slowly and steadily until your sauce emulsifies and takes on the smooth texture you’re after. Taste it, adjust lemon and Tabasco balance, and carry on – all is well again.

Eggs Benedict – Serves 2

4 large, fresh Eggs

2-4 slices thick cut Ham, (Cooked)

4 slices thick cut Sourdough Bread

Tablespoon of White Vinegar

Optional: Pinch of fresh Dill

Preheat oven to Warm.

Cut sourdough into roughly 4″rounds, and do the same with the ham.

Toast sourdough lightly, then place ham onto plates in the oven to heat through.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add about 2″ of hot water, and the vinegar.

When the water starts to simmer, roll the heat back to medium low.

Gently crack an egg and, with the shell just above the water, slowly release it into the pan. The vinegar will help the whites to solidify quickly, keeping your eggs together. Repeat with the other three eggs.

Poach eggs for about 3 minutes, until all the whites are nicely set and the yolks are still semi-liquid.

Remove plates, toast, and ham and set up two of each on warm plates.

Use a slotted spoon to gently corral eggs and set them carefully on the ham and toast stacks.

Uncover hollandaise and whisk to loosen it up a bit. If it’s a bit too thin, a little burst of heat and whisking will take care of that in less than a minute. If perchance it’s thickened too much, a teaspoon to two of milk whisked in will bring everything back to status quo.

Spoon generously over eggs and garnish with a little fresh dill if you wish.

The pretty plate up there? That was the Birthday Boy’s – here’s mine.

Mim Delia’s Old Style Italian Bean Salad

If you fly fish in Washington state, especially around the Olympic Peninsula, chances are good you’ve heard of Jeffrey Delia. He’s a master Sea Run Cutthroat fisher and fly tier – Check out Peninsula Outfitters and you might luck into an SRC or tying class taught by Jeff, or find some of the many flies he’s developed for sale.

That’s one facet of the man, and yeah, I fly fish and that’s how I met him – but he’s here because he’s one hell of a fine home cook. Jeff is of Italian heritage, and his cooking shows that love for fresh ingredients, and honors them by highlighting their finest qualities. 

If there’s one cold salad I really, really love, it’s a beany thing, and Jeff has consented to share his Mom’s venerable recipe with us today – So with no further ado, here’s Mim Delia’s Old Style Italian Bean Salad, perfect for Spring.

Jeff writes, I’ve been eating this Italian style bean salad since I was a little kid so I know it’s at least 60 or 70 years old. You can boil your own beans and that will make it even more delicious, but in a pinch, canned beans make a great salad for a party or a last-minute addition to dinner. You can also use cannelloni beans, black beans, or even black-eyed peas, or beans of your choice. The measurements in the following recipe will serve 6-8 people generously.

Conversion Note: 1 pound of dry beans will yield around 6-7 cups of beans when boiled, and a 15 ounce can of beans yields 1 1/2 to 2 cups.

Mim Delia’s Old Style Italian Bean Salad

3 – 4 Cups Garbanzo Beans, drained. 

1 1/2 – 2 Cups Red Kidney Beans, drained. 

1 1/2 – 2 Cups Black Olives, drained. 

10-2 Pimento Stuffed Green Olives. 

10-20 pitted Kalamata Olives. 

1 Medium red, white, or yellow Onion, sliced as thin as you can. 

Mix all ingredients well. 

Make a classic Vinaigrette – 

1/4 C Red Wine Vinegar. 

3/4 C Olive Oil

1-2 Tablespoons stone ground Mustard. 

1/2-1 teaspoons ground black Pepper. 

Pinch dried oregano and dried basil. 

Pinch of Salt 

Whisk salad ingredients until dressing is emulsified, pour over salad ingredients, mix well and let marinade for at least an hour, (it gets better by the hour so make it the day before if you can.)

If there’s any leftovers I often heat them in a small frying pan and then scramble some eggs into the mixture for a tasty Italian omelette breakfast.