Mojo, the marinade that made carne asada famous

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

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

Carne asada de UrbanMonique
Carne asada de UrbanMonique

Before we dive fully into Mojo, let’s spend a few looking at the history of carne asada – It’s as old as fire and cooking vessels, really. No one can lay claim to originating the dish, (although that hasn’t stopped many from trying). In addition to straight asada, there are popular variants that have much to do with how the meat is handled for service – Shredded or ground, as opposed to cooked whole and sliced, for instance.

Shredded or pulled beef is found in American barbecue, ropa vieja in the Caribbean, and carne deshebrada in Mexico. The versions most Americans are accustomed to stem from northern Mexican cuisines, although there are popular southern variants as well.

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

Specific cuts of beef are commonly associated with carne asada, and they’re not exactly the rock stars. These include skirt, flank, and flap steak, the stuff the folks doing the boogie up on the hill certainly did not buy for themselves. That stuff was considered refuse, and the genesis of great meals formed around such marginal cuts is another example of the disenfranchised making due. Yet here in the 21st century, popularity has turned all that on its head – Some of these lesser cuts have reached the big time cost-wise.

The moral of the story is to be flexible – When we spied eye of the round cut thin as steaks for $5 a pound, it was game over, and ‘authenticity’ be hanged – It’ll all eat just fine – Boneless chuck, the bargain basement of beef cuts, makes perfectly wonderful carne asada.

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

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

As common and as diverse as spaghetti sauce, there are dozens of popular, commercial mojo variants, let alone the tens of thousands rendered by home cooks everywhere. The Spanish word Mojo derives from the Portuguese, Molho, which simply means sauce – a clear indicator of its ubiquity.

There is general agreement that mojo originated in the Canary Islands, the archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. Canarian cuisine is a fascinating amalgamation of the native islanders, (sadly, now largely extinct), Spanish, Portuguese, and African roots. Their cooking emphasizes freshness, simplicity, and powerful flavors, many of which derive from various mojos. Literally every Canarian family has at least two signature mojos, passed down from generation to generation.

The signature island dish, Papas Arrugadas, (wrinkly potatoes), is demonstrative of all that. Whole potatoes boiled in salt water, and served with red and green mojo – And in an interesting twist of serendipity, the potato isn’t native to the Canaries – They came from South America, of course.

Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas
Canarian Mojo with Papas Arrugadas

In its simplest form, mojo contains olive oil, chiles (pimienta in the Canaries), garlic, paprika, coriander (either fresh or seed), and cumin. As mentioned, there are two primary branches of Canarian mojo, red and green. The red, fueled by dried or fresh chiles and paprika, is most often paired with meat, while the green, made with green peppers, cilantro, or parsley, compliments fish courses.

There are many other iterations, some using local cheese, (mojo con queso), garlic, almonds, and fresh herbs – Check out that almond Mojo recipe and you’ll see what I mean about rivaling moles. One could easily spent a happy year working through all these lovely things, and one of these days, I just might.

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

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

The real beauty of Mojo is as a last minute inspirational meal – You’ve got this, that, and the other thing in your stores, so what do you do with them? You do this.

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

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

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

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

Tacos Carne Asada
Tacos Carne Asada

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

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

First, the classic Mojo roots.

Canarian Green Mojo

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

Rinse and dry all produce.

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

Peel and stem garlic, and mince.

Juice lime, and set aside.

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

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

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

Canarian Red Mojo

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

Rinse all produce and pat dry.

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

Fine dice Pepper and chiles.

Mince Garlic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rinse and pat dry all produce.

Zest and juice the citrus, and reserve both.

Peel, stem, and mince the garlic.

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

Remove long stems from Cilantro and mince the remainder.

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

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

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

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

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

Zest and juice lime, set both aside.

Peel, stem and mince garlic

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

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

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

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

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

Rinse and pat dry produce.

Zest and juice Limes, set both aside.

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

Peel and stem Garlic, then mince.

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

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

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

Garlic Papaya Mojo

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

Peel, seed and rough chop papaya.

Zest and juice Limes.

Stem, seed and devein green pepper, then dice.

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

Peel, stem, and mince garlic.

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

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

A Riff on Speckbohnen – The Signature German Bean Dish

We had some amazing brats from Carek’s Meats in Roslyn, WA to do up for dinner, and I wanted a bean side with a German twist, so I did some digging around.

Carek’s Meats is a Roslyn Must Visit

Speckbohnen is a signature German bean dish, almost always done with green beans – yet everything I found said the fundamentals of the dish could be done with any bean – so off I went.

Good Mother Stallards – Almost too pretty to cook

I’d cooked our weekly pound of Rancho Gordo beans earlier in the day – These were Good Mother Stallards, a venerable southeastern U.S. variety with fantastic taste and firm texture – they became the base of this dish. Any firm, meaty bean will do great.

Bohnenkraut – Summer Savory

While there’s leeway in how you prepare Speckbohnen, one thing isn’t up for debate, and that’s Bohnenkraut, AKA Summer Savory – it’s the thing for authentic German-style beans. While it may not be in your spice cabinet, it deserves to be – it’s a delightfully peppery herb, with notes of marjoram, thyme, and mint, and it’s fabulous with beans.

Here’s what I did up, and it was stunningly good – try it, tweak it, and make it yours!

Urban Speckbohnen

Urban’s Speckbohnen

2 Cups Cooked Beans

½ Cup Sweet Onion

2 slices thick cut, smoked Bacon

1 Tablespoon Unsalted Butter

1 Tablespoon Cider Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Grainy Mustard

1 teaspoon Savory

¼ teaspoon Sea Salt

6-8 Twists Black Pepper

Peel, skin and dice onion.
Cut bacon into roughly 1/4” squares.

In a heavy skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon lardons until crispy. Spoon them out onto paper toweling, and reserve about a tablespoon of bacon fat in the skillet.

Return skillet to heat, add butter and melt.

Add onion and sauté until they start to turn translucent, about 2 minutes.

Add the beans and stir with a spoon to bet them well coated.

Add vinegar and mustard and stir to thoroughly incorporate.

Add savory and bacon and stir to thoroughly incorporate.

Season with salt and pepper and taste.

Serve hot, with maybe a hunk of good bread, ‘cause you’ll want all that sauce…

Homemade Hummus & Tahini

If you’ve ever had great hummus, you know it’s a treat. If you’ve experienced meh hummus, maybe too often, you owe it to yourself to make your own – while you can’t control the freshness or quality of store bought, you sure can do so at home.

Urban’s House Made Hummus

Ubiquitous in the Middle East, this dip/spread is built from chickpeas, (AKA garbanzos). they’re widely cultivated and enjoyed throughout the region, and for good reason – They pack decent calories, mono and poly unsaturated fats, no cholesterol, and an excellent assortment of vitamins. Add good olive oil, lemon juice, tahini (ground sesame seeds), garlic, and a pinch of salt, and you’ve got a delicious treat.

You’ll find a lot of online recipes using canned garbanzos, but you won’t find that here – your finished product is only as good as your ingredients. The first time you cook top quality dried against anything canned, you’ll never use the latter again – it’s a night and day difference. Get dried garbanzos from Rancho Gordo and you’ll get the best of the best, and likely never look back.

For olive oil, my hands down choice is top quality Greek oil, and I’ll let my Tribal Sister, Christy Hohman Caine, explain why – “Your raw oil should come from Kalamata or Crete and be labeled PDO (protected designation of origin). Greek oils are usually greenish to greenish-gold in color. They are zippy, peppery, grassy, and herbaceous and very complex. They are definitely NOT buttery. Think of Greek oils as flavor enhancers and condiments. There are different tastes in Greek olive oils which are great to experiment with. Some have a tomato leaf essence, others are more lemony. You can get good Greek olive oils online at Greek markets and food shops.” Don’t know about y’all, but you don’t need to tell me twice – I’ve been a convert ever since I read that.

Toasted sesame seeds

Finally a note on tahini – it’s critical to great hummus. Finding good quality, fresh is far easier than it used to be, but if you want the best, you can build your own – here’s how.

House made Tahini

House Made Tahini

1 Cup fresh Sesame Seeds

+/- 1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Pinch Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in the middle position.

Spread seeds evenly across a clean baking sheet.

Bake until seeds lightly brown and are fragrant, about 10 – 12 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

Pour seeds and oil into a processor, (or blender), and pulse until a smooth paste forms – add more oil if needed, a teaspoon at a time.

Store in a glass, airtight container in a cool, dark spot. Tahini may separate over time, but just flip and shake your container and it’ll be good as new.

Urban’s House Made Hummus

1 pound Rancho Gordo Garbanzos

3/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 cup freshly squeezed Lemon Juice

1/3 Cup fresh Tahini

3 cloves fresh Garlic

2 teaspoons ground Cumin

1 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika

Vegetable crudités and/or pita bread for chowing

Cooking garbanzos a la Rancho Gordo

NOTE: volumes of ingredients other than garbanzos are to our taste – we think it makes great hummus – that said, the batch you make is yours, so adjust as needed to get what you love.

Cook the garbanzos in the RG manner – stove top, covered with 2+” of fresh water, with 2 bay leaves and 2-3 small cloves of peeled and trimmed garlic. Bring to a full boil for 10-15 minutes, then reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook until the peas are tender, always maintaining at least 2” of water above the peas – add simmering hot water from a tea kettle to top things off.

Do as Steve Sando advises on the RG website for cooking beans – reduce heat as far as you can while still getting a simmer bubble and let them go low and slow until they’re creamy and almost starting to fall apart a bit.

Drain the peas and reserve bean broth – it’s magic stuff as a base for soup or stew, or added to a pan sauce.

Allow the peas to cool to close to room temperature.

Add garlic cloves to a food processor and pulse until well minced.

From garbanzo to hummus

Add garbanzos, lemon juice, tahini, and cumin, and pulse a few times to get things incorporated.

Running the processor, add the oil in a slow steady stream. Stop several times to scrape the sides down with a spatula.

Add salt and continue to process until you have a smooth, creamy consistency. If things are too thick, add a tablespoon at a time of oil to thin it out.

House made hummus

Taste and adjust as desired – keep in mind that it takes a good 15 to 30 minutes for everything to get truly cozy and incorporated.

Transfer to a serving bowl, drizzle with a bit more oil, and dust with the paprika.

Chow down with veggie crudités, pita chips, flatbread, your finger, etc.

Branch out and maybe top a bed of hummus with spiced beef and pine nuts, a wonderful Lebanese treat.

Store refrigerated in an airtight glass container for up to 5 days, or freeze up to 2 months.

Le Quiche Lorraine Authentique

On the morning after Christmas, with the temperature in single digits, 8” of snow on the ground, and a north wind howling away at 40 knots, I got a hankering for quiche. I’ve written about and done up hundreds of recipes over the years, so I was indeed surprised to find only my legendary Potato Crusted Quiche in my recipe files.

How could I have gone this long without writing about the first iteration of this dish to storm America, the Quiche Lorraine?

Quiche Lorraine
Quiche Lorraine

First, a bit of history is in order for quiche in general and the Lorraine version in particular. Bien sur, even though France broadly claims the dish, what we know as quiche came from Germany back in the sixteenth century, from the region that was called Lothringen and is now Lorraine. In all fairness, this region has changed sides more than a few times, so the French must be forgiven this most reasonable appropriation.

Lorraine Region of France

What is a quiche Lorraine, then? Go there, (and truth be told across much of France), and what you’ll get is a one short-crust pie filled with a rich, savory custard and smoky, local bacon or ham. The seasoning will be salt, pepper, and a hint of freshly grated nutmeg.

So where did the version that stormed America come from – the one with the bacon or ham, plus Gruyère cheese, sautéed onions, and the same seasonings? The short answer is, right there, over time.

See, the region in question has also been called Alsace-Lorraine, even if France wants to call them Lorraine and Alsace-Moselle nowadays. Add onions to a quiche Lorraine, you get a quiche Alsacienne, me comprenez-vous?

The cheese came later, but also from the same region. Even though we’re told that Gruyère or Swiss are the proper cheese options for a Lorraine, right there they make Comté, also known as Gruyère de Comté. What this means is, you’ve got options.

Gruyère de Compté

For this and any quiche, there are steps you need to take to consistently produce a non-watery pie with a perfect, custardy filling – they’re outlined below, in detail. Also, just between us? You can also just buy a damn pre-made crust – truth be told, it ain’t like anybody’s gonna know, right?

Quiche Lorraine

For the Crust –

2 Cups Pastry Flour

1/2 Cup cold Butter, diced

1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

6 – 8 Tablespoons Ice Cold Water

Crust Prep

Remember; great pie dough is simple and minimally handled.

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt.

Add the butter and work it into the dry ingredients by hand or with a pastry knife until it resembles rough corn meal in texture.

Add the water a tablespoon at a time and stir the dough with a fork.

When the dough holds together as a ball, but isn’t wet or sticky, stop messing with it, cover it in a mixing bowl refrigerate for 1/2 hour.

Pull your dough and hand form it into a disk about 3/4″ thick, then roll it out on a lightly floured surface, into a 12” circle roughly 1/8″ thick.

Lift an edge and carefully peel the dough free, then drape it onto a dry 9″ pie pan.

Trim the dough with a paring knife, leaving it about 1″ over the edge, then tuck the overhanging dough underneath itself to form a thick edge on the pan, and treat it as you see fit, (I like the classic thumb print myself).

Preheat your oven to 400° F, and position racks in the center position.
Put a piece of parchment paper or foil over the pie dough and fill with dried beans or pie weights.

Blind bake the crust on the center rack for 15 minutes, then remove to the stove top.

Remove pie weights and parchment from crust and set aside to cool.
Reduce oven temp to 350° F.

For the Filling –

1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk

1/2 Cup Crème Fraîche, Mexican Crema, Buttermilk, or Sour Cream

4 fresh Eggs

4 Ounces Smoked Bacon or Ham, (European style is best)

1 Cup Gruyère, Comté, or Swiss Cheese

1/2 Cup Onion

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated Nutmeg

6-8 twists freshly ground Black Pepper

5-6 shakes Tabasco sauce

Prepare your mise en place.

Portion milk and whatever sour cream variant you use and bring eggs out of the fridge as well – let them sit at room temp while you work on everything else.

Dice bacon or ham and cheese into roughly 1/4” squares.

Fine dice or thinly slice onion, as you prefer.

In a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, add the ham or bacon and fry until you have nice, crispy lardons, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Transfer meat back to mixing bowl.

Reserve about a tablespoon of fat from the fried pork and add the onions to the sauté pan – cook until they are lightly browned, about 3 minutes.

Scatter cheese, bacon or ham, and onions evenly across the par baked crust.

In a mixing bowl, combine milk, sour cream, eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and Tabasco. Pulse with a stick blender until fully incorporated, about 1 minute.

Pour the custard carefully over the cheese, meat, and onions.

Carefully slide the quiche into a middle rack spot and bake at 350° F until the top has puffed up and is golden brown, about 35-40 minutes.

Remove quiche from oven and allow a 5 to 10 minute rest before devouring.

It’s great for dinner with a nice green salad and glass of wine, too, by the way.

Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov?

The weather is atrocious, we’re in vacation,I cooked up some extra beef last night, and it’s. Time for serious comfort food – We did up Hungarian Gulyás recently, so why not cover its Russian Cousin?

Beef Stroganoff, or should I say, Stroganov, is what I’ve got in mind, and I’m willing to bet that merely reading those words has already gone to work on you, too. I’m talking authentic beef stroganoff here, which raises an important question – What exactly is authentic, in this regard? Let’s find out.

Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov
Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov

If you’re a student of food history you’ve heard some version of the origin story for beef stroganoff. Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov was the Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia under Czar Alexander III, in the early 19th century. He was also the president of the historical society, a famous and wealthy man, and a bit of a gourmand.

The rest of the story goes that he collaborated with his French Chef to invent Beef Stroganov, which took Russia by storm, winning awards throughout the country, and is still with us today. While the modern dish is surely named Stroganoff, the origin story is frankly bollocks.

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

There is evidence to support the belief that at least one Stroganov Count had a French Chef, though I’ve yet to read anything definitive as to which one. While most popular versions tap Count Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov as the creator, there are rival claims for Counts Pavel Alexandrovich and Sergei Grigorievich as well. The first published recipe that specifically called the dish Beef Stroganov I’m aware of appeared in a cookbook written by Elena Molokovhets in 1861, (A Gift For Young Housewives).

It’s also true that, thirty years later, in Saint Petersburg, a French Chef named Charles Briere was awarded a blue ribbon for a dish he called Beef Stroganov. But at that point, Alexander Grigorievich Stroganov had been dead for almost 75 years, and the youngest candidate, Sergei, had died in 1882. Nothing I read definitively tied Briere to the Stroganovs either – Clear as mud, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

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

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

Trimmed fat and connective tissue
Trimmed fat and connective tissue

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

Rendering fat from beef trimmings
Rendering fat from beef trimmings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer onions and stock to a mixing bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique
Beef Stroganov a la UrbanMonique

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

Na Zdorovie!

Hungarian Gulyás with Csipetke

Hungarian Gulyás with Csipetke

Here in the northwest corner of Washington State, winter has set in – temperatures in the 30s and 40s, heavy wind, raining sideways. It’s the time to deploy all the goodies we grew and preserved last summer – stocks, sauces, root veggies and such – time for soups and stews.

One of our favorites is what you probably call Goulash, but Gulyás would be more accurate – either way, it’s Hungary’s answer to winter storms.

Gulyás is a National dish of Hungary, (albeit it’s popular throughout Central Europe in various iterations.) Gulyás has shown up in recorded history as far back as the 9th century. Like chili in northern Mexico, it started as a dried meat preparation carried by shepherds – just add water and you’d have a hearty meal ready for days end.

Hungarians take their Chiles very seriously

The version we enjoy now is a bit different from the original. For about the last 500 years, Gulyás has been powered by powdered chiles – those originated in the Americas, but took the world by storm when introduced across Europe and Asia by the Spaniards back in the 1500s.

The Hungarian version of dried, powdered capsicum annuum, AKA paprika, goes damn near that far back – to the 1600s, when the Turks grew it in Buda, now known as Budapest – Ever since, Gulyás has been paprika powered.

Gulyás is a perfect vehicle to celebrate fall harvest root vegetables with. Other variants contain dry pinto or cranberry beans (Babgulyás), sauerkraut (Szekelygulyás), or haricot vert (Palocgulyás). Versatile stuff, indeed.

For us at home, this is a godsend – like many legendary dishes, there is no one authentic version – there are many. Everyone’s mom makes Golyás, as does any restaurant worth their stuff, and all of them can be (and usually are) glorious – yours will be too.

The paprika in Gulyás affords significant room to play. There are three major varieties you’ll find – sweet, hot, and smoked. Use one, or mix, and you’ll find myriad differences in your final dish. For a real treat, chase down genuine Hungarian paprika – of that, Rubin Szeged Sweet is arguably the best there is – though other famous makers certainly have fine stuff as well.

Paprika isn’t the only unique note to this stew, there’s a great minor note of caraway, the earthy-herby influence of parsnip, and the brightness of celery leaf or parsley. The beef you choose should be a lean roast cut. Onions can be yellow, sweet, red – whatever you prefer. Fresh varietal potatoes will shine here as well.

You’ll notice some leeway in several ingredients – feel free to tweak as you see fit. Any stock you like will work fine, but water will deliver a great dish, too.

In addition to the ingredients, method is important – if you don’t follow the steps, you’ll get a nice soup or stew, but it won’t reach its full potential.

Finally, you don’t need to make or add csipetke, but they’re surprising delicious, authentic, and better yet – they maintain their firmness for next day leftovers.

Urban’s Reasonably Authentic Hungarian Gulyás

4-6 Cups Stock or Water

1 1/2 Pounds Beef

2 medium Onions

2 large Roma Tomatoes

2 fresh Green Bell Peppers

2-3 small Potatoes (any variety you like)

1-2 fresh Carrots

1 Fat Parsnip

2-3 fat cloves fresh Garlic

2-3 fresh Celery Leaves (dry will work, as will parsley)

2-4 Tablespoons Hungarian Paprika

2 teaspoons ground Caraway Seed

2 Bay Leaves

2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil

Sea Salt

Fresh ground Pepper

End trim, peel, and rough dice onion.

End trim, peel and mince garlic.

Trim the top and white membranes from the green peppers and rough dice.

End trim and rough dice carrots and parsnip.

End trim and dice tomatoes.

Rough dice potatoes.

Combine carrot, parsnip, peppers, and potatoes in a mixing bowl and cover veggies with cold water.

Roll up celery leaf (or parsley) and chiffonade cut.

Grind caraway seed in a mortal and pestle (or spice grinder) until you develop a rough powder.

Cut beef into roughly 1/2” cubes.

Measure and portion out bay leaves, oil, salt, and pepper.

In a cast iron dutch oven over medium high heat, add the oil and heat through.

Add the onion, a pinch of salt and a couple twists of pepper – sauté until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the paprika to the onions and stir in well to thoroughly coat.

Add the cubed beef to the hot dutch oven, and sauté until lightly browned on all sides, about 10-12 minutes.

Add the minced garlic, a 3 finger pinch of salt, 10-12 twists of pepper, the ground caraway seed, and bay leaves, and stir everything in well to incorporate.

Cover the mix with stock or water to about an inch above the goodies.
When the meat blend starts to boil, reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer.

Simmer for 90 minutes, adding water or stock as needed to maintain a full cover.

After 90 minutes, add the diced veggie blend, including the soaking water, and stir well to incorporate.

Simmer for another 90-120 minutes, until everything is nice and tender.

Taste the broth and adjust salt and pepper balance as needed. You may add more paprika at this point too, if you wish.

Serve with csipetke, or crusty bread, sour cream, and a nice glass of rustic red.

This is a signature Hungarian pasta – they have a delightful, firm chew and they carry flavors like nobody’s business. Derived from the Hungarian word csípni (pinch), the name speaks to the technique of making the pasta – little pinky nail sized chunks are slightly flattened and pinched off a thin rope of dough, then cooked in water or the gulyás, as you prefer.

Hungarian Csipetke

Hungarian Csipetke

1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour

1 large Egg

2 finger pinch Sea Salt

1 teaspoon cold Water

On a clean work surface, place the flour and make a well in the middle.

Crack the egg into the well and whisk with a fork until well beaten.

Add a pinch of salt to the egg mix and whisk in.

Slowly add flour to the egg to form a dough.

Add the water if needed.

Knead for about 5 minutes until you have a firm, smooth dough.

Cover with a clean, damp towel and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Roll the dough into a cigar shape, spinning it between floured palms, stretching and reducing the diameter until you’ve got a rope roughly 1/4” in diameter.

Pull/pinch a piece off the end of the rope and continue until all your csipetke are formed.

Boil in well salted water until the csipetke float to the surface, about 3-5 minutes.

Alternatively, you can toss the csipetke into your simmering gulyás for about 10 minutes before serving.