Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Slow Cooked Ham and Beans with Merken Ahumado

At the end of our tour of Chile's Lago Llanguihue area we had some spare time to kill before our lunch reservation at Cotele in Puerto Montt (you can read all about that here).  Since it was right down the street from the restaurant, our guide gave us a tour of the port town's local fish market.  While I wasn't all that interested in the barnacle display, the lady with the bags full of spices hanging from the ceiling caught my attention.  Or I should probably say caught my nose's attention.  You could smell the smoke and heat a good ten feet away.



I wasn't exactly sure what I was buying but I knew it was a dried chile of some type or a mixture of dried chiles and I could tell by looking (and smelling) that there was a natural kind and a smoked kind.  They were priced at 1,000 Chilean Pesos/bag and after asking hubs to do that math for me.....because math is HARD....I shelled out roughly $3 and walked myself away with my favorite purchase of the entire trip.  I made the mistake of throwing them into the bottom of my purse where they sat for the next two weeks.  My purse still smells like smoked chiles!

When I got home I did a little chile research and googled what was written on the bag.  According to Wikipedia.....

Merkén or merquén (from the Mapuche mezkeñ) is a smoked chili pepper (or, in Spanish, "ají") used as a condiment that is often combined with other ingredients when in ground form. Merkén is a traditional condiment in Mapuche cuisine in Chile. 

 The base ingredient of Merkén is the smoked pepper "cacho de cabra" (Capsicum Annuum var. Lungum) a dried, smoked, red pepper, that is sometimes ground with toasted coriander seed and salt. The traditional process of preparation is slow, since it involves harvesting green peppers and then letting them mature to develop an intense reddish color. The peppers are dried naturally in the sun and are then smoked over a wood fire. They are then stored by being hung to dry prior to grinding. Once reduced to powder or flakes, the peppers are often mixed with salt and roasted ground coriander seed.  Commercially, merkén pepper with only an addition of salt is known as "natural merken" ("merkén natural"), while "special merkén" ("merkén especial") contains coriander seeds. The composition of "special merkén" is approximately 70% chili, 20% salt, and 10% coriander seed. 

Merkén originates primarily from the cuisine of the Mapuches of the Araucanía Region of Chile, but is also used in the Chilean cuisine as a replacement for fresh chili. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Merkén has drawn the attention of professional chefs and has begun to find an international market.

 Merkén is most commonly used as the following: 
A general condiment for seasoning dishes such as lentils, gold potatoes, and sautéed vegetables. 
A dry-rub for tuna, lamb, pork, or duck. 
A sprinkle, spice rub, or boiling spice for seafood including crab. 
An addition to stews, savory pies, and purees. 
A spice for ceviches. An addition to cow or goat cheese. 
An addition to peanuts or salty olives.

So, since Merken is a smoked chile, and "ahumado" means "smoked" is the Merken Ahumado double smoked?  We may never know!    "Entero" translates to "whole" so I'm guessing what I purchased is not in combination with any other spices.  So there you go!  And the good news is you don't need to go all the way to Puerto Montt to score yourself some merken....of course Amazon sells it!!  The bad news is you're not quite getting the bargain that I did.

 I'd kind of forgotten about them until I decided to make Mr. B some ham and beans.  I thought, "If anything in the world could use a punch of flavor, it would be beans!"  So I combined about a teaspoon of the merken ahumado with some ground coriander and ground cumin and added to my beans.  Wow.  The added spice along with the smokiness of the ham hocks made for a killer combination.  Like they'd been stewing over a wilderness campfire rather than my not-so-wilderness kitchen.

If you can't get your hands on merken, I think your favorite dried, smoked chile would be a great substitute....ancho, de arbol, guajillo.....

Hubs likes his ham and beans served over cornbread so that's what I did.  He doesn't often get what he wants, so I throw him a bone now and then.  This is my favorite cornbread recipe, but you do you.

Here's the recipe:

Slow Cooked Ham and Beans with Merken Ahumado

2 smoked ham hocks (approx. 2 lbs)
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery sticks, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp. smoked, dried chiles (If you're using a whole, dried chile coarsely grind it either in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground corriander
1 lb. dried cannelini or great norther beans
1 quart chicken stock plus water to cover

In a large dutch oven,  heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add the ham hocks and saute for about 5 minutes.....just to get some of that smoky flavor into the oil.  Remove the hocks and set aside, reduce heat to medium and add in the onions, carrots and celery.  Saute until softened, about 10 minutes.  Add in the garlic and saute for about 1 minute then add in the spices.  Stir to combine with the vegetables and then add the beans and stir to combine everything for a minute or two.  Add the ham hocks back into the pot and pour in the quart of chicken stock and enough water to cover the beans and hocks.  Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 8 hours.

Remove the ham hocks.  Discard the fat and bones and shred the ham.  Add the shredded ham back into the pot.

I wait until now to add the salt and pepper because I never know how much salt the ham hock is going to add.  Adjust to your taste.

Serve over cornbread or whatever floats your boat.

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