Get your mojo running

For the last few weeks, this space has been heavily Durham-centric.

Well, not this week.

Today our sojourn will be in the sunny climes of the Caribbean, by way of Brier Creek.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico there is a sauce called mojo (pronounced mow-hoe).  It’s a very strongly flavored marinade.  Along with herbs like oregano and culantro (culantro, not cilantro; it’s an entirely different plant), it’s full of garlic, olive oil, and bitter orange juice.

While different places have different varieties, the most common is mojo criollo.  Criollo means Creole, which is a mixture of cultures.  The cultures in this instance are Spanish, African, and indigenous Caribbean.  Traditionally it’s used in amazing pork dishes.

This will look very familiar to barbecue-crazy folks from NC…in Cuba and Puerto Rico it’s called lechon.  And once you’ve had it, you will dream about this crispy, crispy skin.

A few weeks ago I went shopping to help fill fridge and pantry in The Kid’s new apartment.  After Target, but before we hit Lowes Foods, we stopped at the dollar store.  It’s terrific for nonperishables.  I almost always buy egg noodles and canned beans there.  I’ve also gotten amazing cosmetics there too.  The $1.00 eye liner works better than one from Sephora costing $14.00.

As we were walking down one aisle, I spied a bottle of mojo criollo.  It was a smaller size, but even so, $1.00 is a real bargain.  The Kid picked up a bottle and so did I.

That was the first bottle I bought there.  I used it to marinate pork tenderloin and flavor a pot of black rice for dinner one night.  It was delicious.

Then I went back for a second bottle.

This time, I decided to color outside the lines.  I would do something with it that I’d never heard of.  I was going to make mojo pasta salad.

Mojo chicken pasta salad

mojo pasta

1/3 cup + 1/4 cup mojo criollo

1 cup mayonnaise

Pinch of sugar

Water

1/2 pound tubetti, sea shell, cavatapi, or lumaconi pasta

1 cup frozen peas, blanched and shocked

3/4 cup grape tomatoes or similar

1/4 cup diced red onion

3 cups cooked, shredded chicken

Salt and pepper to taste

Make dressing: Whisk together mayo, 1/3 cup mojo, and sugar.  Add enough water to make it the consistency of creamy salad dressing.  Taste and season.  Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Slice tomatoes in half and place in colander.  Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and let sit out for at least 90 minutes.  This will draw out much of the moisture, so the tomato flavors are concentrated and the juice doesn’t dilute the dressing.

Cook pasta in heavily salted, boiling water until tender.  Drain.  While still hot, put into a large bowl and stir in ¼ cup mojo.  Cool completely.

1 hour before service, gently mix together all ingredients.  Stir in dressing.  Make it a bit wetter than you want the final product, as the dressing will absorb into salad and will dry out as it sits.

Let sit at room temp for one hour.  Before serving, toss and check for seasoning.

Serves 4-6 as a main or 8 as a side.

I buy them at the Durham Coop, and almost always have some in the fridge.

I served this with a large handful of pea shoots on top.  They’re exactly what you think; tiny shoots from a pea plant.  Fresh and green, with a mild peppery bite, they’re perfect for sandwiches and on top of dishes that need a hit of something bright.  They’re perfect on scrambled eggs and avocado toast.

We also had some bread with our meal.

While I was at Brier Creek picking up the mojo, I stopped by Earth Fare for one of the best deals in town.  They have freshly baked baguettes for only 98 cents, every day.  Right before we eat I run it under some water, and toss it in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so.

This little trick brings bread back to bakery freshness.  I keep rolls and buns in the freezer, and with this method, we have fresh bread on demand (when frozen, they go for 13 minutes).  For yeasty dinner rolls, instead of water, I spread a thin layer of butter over the whole surface.  They come out crispy and buttery.

Plate up some of this pasta salad, pour a glass of rum, and turn on the salsa music.  You’re in Puerto Rico with no plane ticket required.

Thanks for your time.

Ode To An Onyx Lodge

Originally published in the Herald Sun 3/7/2012

I just wiped oil off one of my best friends. I toasted coconut, and we got a little sticky.
The name of my anointed friend? It’s characteristically simple and straightforward, just; “Cast Iron”. It’s big, handled, and has the heft to be a lethal weapon. It’s my Lodge skillet.
On the 1999 premiere of “Good Eats”, Alton Brown perfectly cooked steak in his cast iron. He extolled their many virtues. I decided to procure one.
I grew up ignorant of them. I remember, as a child, briefly seeing one at a friend’s house, in a sink full of cold, dirty, water. It haunts me, like someone who years ago witnessed a murder, and only now realizes the true horror of what they saw. Those things are indestructible, but they can be criminally disrespected.
Non-users may feel there’s a lot of work involved in the care and feeding. True, it’s easy to toss a pan in the dishwasher for five or ten years, and then get a new one. But do you know how I usually clean Cast Iron? I wipe it out with a paper towel. That’s the whole deal. And that is but one facet of the beauty that is my forged-by-fire friend.
Curiously, there is only one factory in the whole country that makes cast iron cookware. Lodge Ironworks, in the Appalachian mountains, has been around since 1896. And they still do it the same way.
I once bought a piece that was not Lodge; therfore, not made to US safety standards. When heated, it replaced the house’s oxygen with greasy fumes that smelled of outsourcing and death.
Don’t mess around. For something that can honestly outlast you (and not by murdering you), pay the extra few dollars.
I got mine off the dusty shelf of a sleepy hardware store, unseasoned. Let me repeat that: un…seasoned.
Ask anybody to describe granny’s skillet, and they’ll speak of something the color of the burnished, unfathomable black of (insert name of hated politician or celebrity here)’s heart.
Brand new, and unseasoned, they are closer to the depressing, gunmetal gray of Mitt Romney’s bachelor weekend in Altoona. Also when new, they’re whatever the complete opposite of non-stick is.
To get it as black as a licorice whip and slick as a cruise ship Lothario, the surface must be seasoned. Over time, the heated metal and fat forms a bond, that as it darkens, will become naturally non-stick.
*Microscopic gaps in the smooth, bonded, surface of cookware will shrink when hot (it all has gaps, even well seasoned, long-time possesions). So preheat before using, every time.
If it’s scrubbed after every use, or chunked into the Maytag, that marriage will wash away.
So how to clean?
The key is to, carefully, wipe it when it’s still a little hot. That’s when you deal with any gunk. When the surface is smooth and dry, you’re done. If that doesn’t work, pour some kosher salt in and gently rub. It’s easier with fat, so if needed, splash a little cooking oil into the warm pan. This method can also be used to reclaim neglected pans with an entirely rusted-over surface (like Aunt Eugenia’s set in the attic, maybe?).
What if it’s really messed up, and the salt ain’t gonna cut it?
This next tactic works, but can be dangerous, so at least wear some gloves, and think about maybe renting a haz-mat suit.
Take the pan, as hot as you trust yourself, and pour in some warm water; you’re deglazing the stuck. If the pan is molten, and the water icy, you’ll crack the metal–irreversibly fatal. So, ginger.
Sometimes it’s gloppy and dirty (like for my Skillet Taters). It’s then time for hot, soapy water. It will lubricate and cleanse. If all else fails, use a very soft scrubby sponge (I really dig the hourglass O-Cel-O). Go slowly and lightly, and stop as soon as you feel surface. Give it the same bomb-squad reverence you would a non-stick piece of All-Clad from Williams-Sonoma.

Skillet Taters
If you make these, your skillet will see some warm, soapy water later. Just be gentle.

3 cups unpeeled cubed into 3/4 inch approx. You want them similar size and shape. If you have fingerlings, slice into 1/2 coins. Baby potatoes, quarter or halve, just make sure there is cut are on each potato.
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 tbls each butter and oil (You can substitue bacon drippings, and sprinkle the finished dish with crumbled bacon, but I am not coming with you on your next doctor’s appt)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme
pinch sugar
1/2 tsp favorite seasoning blend (I like Goya Adobo with bitter orange)bacon
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 tbls chopped fresh flat leaf parsey
squeeze of citrus, if you’re out, substitute splash of you favorite vinegar
pinch cayenne

In a pot of heavily salted water (it should taste like the ocean any time you boil anything), cook potatoes until just barely tender, a paring knife goes in, but with a little resistance.
Drain, and allow them to dry on the outside. This cuts down on popping and spitting later.
Get your skillet hot. Not quite smoking, because of the fats involved, but really hot.
Tumble in spuds and toss in the pan to coat with fat. Season potatoes with everything, except for onion, parsley, and juice.
When the taters are evenly coated arrange them in one layer. Then take your spatula and give them all little smoosh. Not quite a smash, something gentler. You want be able to recognize a slightly battered cube after smooshing it. Then leave them alone.
Reduce heat to medium, cook until the crustiness that has appeared is browned to your liking. Add chopped onions, toss everything around a bit and then put them in a single layer and smoosh. Don’t get too wrapped up in making sure each potato is perfectly golden, you want some amber colored crust, some blond crispiness, and even some black peeking out here and there. They are home fries, not NASA fries.
Cook until they and nice and crispy, maybe another 6-7 minutes. Stir in parsley.
Just before serving, spritz with citrus, and check for salt.
I like mine topped with a poached egg. Petey likes his with scrambled, and a steak.

If you’re forced to wash it, dry it immediately. Oxidation can happen quickly. Store it like a freshly showered body builder–very lightly oiled. It’s not just sexy, it provides a barrier against moisture.
After especially vigorous cleaning, give your faithful companion a spa treatment. Pour in about a quarter cup of cooking oil, wipe it all around, and let it meditate in a 250-300 degree oven for about an hour. Wipe out the excess while warm, and when it’s cool, put it away, so the saucepans can tell it how rested it looks.
One of the most classic things made in it, and an honest test of your cast iron stewardship, is corn bread.
My favorite is Mildred “Mama Dip” Council’s, “Sunday Cornbread”. It’s moist like it should be, and crispy where it oughta.
Clean-up after baking cornbread?
My seasoned, loyal comrade now wipes completely clean with one dry Viva. The first time it happened, I almost wept. The memory still touches me deeply.
Thanks for your time.