Foodie Tuesday: And now for something not entirely different!

Did you think that I would never, ever be done talking about lobster and lobster rolls? You might be right. A summer with trips to both the American northeast and Nova Scotia would be woefully incomplete for me, despite all of its charms and treasures, if it weren’t also a fully loaded lobster pilgrimage. So even though I made quite the pig of myself eating as many lobster rolls as I could lay hands upon while dashing through Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, I had no compunction about keeping my eyes—and jaws—open for further lobster attractions on reaching Halifax.

This being my first visit to the Canadian Maritimes, I didn’t know for certain what to expect in this regard, although I was confident there would be some place I could get a bit of fresh Canadian (Atlantic) lobster. What I didn’t in the least expect was that it would be at the local outpost, right next door to our hotel, of a continent-wide and not especially high-end fast food submarine sandwich chain. That’s right: fresh lobster salad at SubWay. I’m just gonna go on record as saying that I have a new dash of respect for SubWay.

I like sandwiches and eat them reasonably often, but SubWay had fallen very low on the roster of places I opted to find my fix when I wasn’t making my own sammies. There are, in addition to any number of bistros and soup-and-sandwich specialty shops and cafes nearly everywhere in the western world these days, plenty of competing sandwich chains and most of them, in my opinion, more reliable for fresh ingredients and those, not as heavily processed as what I was getting for a while at SubWay stores. If this apparently annual offering of lobster salad (lobster meat with a minimum of mayonnaise binding it) ever moved close to where I was living, I would have to change my stance entirely, at least during the lobster event.

This is not to say that their sandwich would supplant, or even fully competes with, the lobster rolls that became objects not only of admiration but outright obsession at such places as Neptune in Boston—this, boosted, admittedly, by the house’s swell hand-cut fries—and Libby’s in Brunswick—my current chief heartthrob of lobster roll-dom, on the strength of a butter-toasted bun, options for cold-with-mayo or hot-with-melted-butter, and most importantly, the unsurpassable fresh and sweet perfection and massive quantity of lobster meat—these will not be usurped in the lobster roll pantheon by a mere sub shop lobster salad sandwich. But I owe the corporate sandwich emporium sincere admiration and kudos for giving an affordable and eminently edible, credible lobster sandwich. Not anyone’s run of the mill SubWay offering, that.

And if the chiller is refilled by the next lunchtime when I’m near enough to do it, I’ll buy it again. Because, as I’ve said before: Lobster.Photo: Lobster Again

Foodie Tuesday: Hot Weather? Cold Treats.

Photo: Black Raspberry Ice CreamI don’t think it necessary to explain to you. That title…you know just what I mean. It’s summer here. All over the whole danged country, it’s summer; it’s hot, or the local equivalent of Hot wherever we are, and we’re a bit uncomfortable with it, most of us.Photo: Chocolate Soft Serve

The solution is obvious. Cool it, my friends. Chilled food and drink save the day. Heck, they can save the whole week, when necessary. I love good cold eats and treats at any time, but especially so in hot weather.Photo: Gianduia Gelato

And there are so many worthy options that it would be impossible to exhaust the inventory before the too-warm season ended. But I’m willing to try. Ice cream, sorbet, frozen fruit. Icy cold smoothies, Thai iced tea, lemonade, and cold, clear ice water. Gelato. Ahhh. You have my permission. You’re welcome.Photo: Sea Salt Caramel Gelato

Foodie Tuesday: Butter and Bread

Photo montage: Peasant BreadYou have noticed, I am sure, that the phrase in English is virtually always given as “Bread and Butter,” but if you’ve been here even once before on a Tuesday, you know quite well that for me, butter—not bread—is the sine qua non of this duo, and indeed, in a multitude of other pairings and combinations. Bread, no matter how delicious, is first and foremost a vehicle for a quantity of excellent butter. I will, like other people, eat bread without butter if it’s superb bread or there is no butter to be had, but if you think I won’t eat butter without bread you are very much mistaken.

Butter is delicious.

It is also emerging, in latter years, from under the cloud of privation-inspired (wartime rationing, the Great Depression, and so on back through the ages) inhibitions that resulted in the invention and embrace of all kinds of butter substitutes and, subsequently, the pedantically reinforced attitude that fat in general, and butter, specifically, represented the earthly form of Pure Evil. Turns out that the less dramatic and more practicable truth is that fats, butter among them, are no more dangerous when eaten by non-allergic people and in reasonable quantities proportionate to their other food intake and not processed in ways that remove it too far from its natural state—fat is digestible, useful, and even healthful. Well, butter my biscuits!

Yes, bread is delicious, too.

The list of breads I love is astoundingly long, beginning with the simplest unleavened kinds and wending its way through worlds of batter-based, raised, kneaded, savory or sweet, dark or light, dense and moistly heavy (say, a chocolate-y black pumpernickel) or ethereally feather-fluffy and flaky (perhaps a vanilla-scented brioche or a just-baked croissant) to the filled, sculpted, decorated concoctions of the most masterful bakers. While I was never a baking genius, I was a dedicated maker of a variety of rather delicious breads during grad school, using the kneading time as my meditation and the choices of style and flavors as my medication, both necessary for the survival classes like Ed-Psych and Statistical Data Analysis for Pedagogical Applications.

My favorites to make tended toward the frivolous dessert-tinged breads, upon which a slathering of butter served, in essence, as icing on the cake. I used that classic baking bible, Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads, for many of my inspirations, though as I always do, I roamed far and wide in making substitutions to suit my pantry and my mood as I baked. But probably the two recipes I used as my foundational go-to favorites most often were from Mom, for Limpa (light, sweet Swedish-style rye) and Julekake (cardamom scented sweet bread traditionally made with dried and candied fruits and peels). I’ve made Limpa plain, once or twice, to be sure, but I can guarantee I never made Julekake exactly according to recipe, since every single version I’ve seen or eaten elsewhere contains raisins and often, candied cherries, neither of which I like texturally in baked goods. Just not my thing. So I’d either delete some add-ins or make all the measures of fruity/candied ingredients in the recipe be strictly candied peel and citron, which will undoubtedly make lots of people laugh, since very few folk I know dislike raisins, or even those neon red-and-green candied cherries, but citron is notoriously a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient and I gather, is less often admired than reviled.

Go figure.

Much of the time, when I’ve baked from recipes that called for candied peel and fruits, dried fruit pieces, nuts, and that sort of thing, I like most of all to substitute that sort of thing with my preferred varieties of them, whether it’s in breads, cakes, cookies, steamed puddings, or anything else. So you’re more likely to find me making a facsimile of Julekake that contains a combination of citron, juicy candied orange peel and ginger, diced dried apricots, and coarsely chopped dark chocolate. That’s the way I roll knead to do it.

And still. Even though it may be full of candy, I’m going to slather some fresh, cool, lightly salted butter all over that bread before I eat it, if I get the slightest chance. Makes it slide down mighty nicely, if I do say so!

PS—All of that being said, I do greatly enjoy bread’s natural suitability as a superb support and vehicle for lovely fats. Being in Texas, I am glad to indulge my admiration for fine BBQ (and whether it’s meat or not, it ought to be good and greasy) as often as possible, and sometimes even the squishy, soulless processed bread traditionally served with BBQ is perfect with it, a plate you can eat when the rest of the meal is gone. Incredible burnt ends. A hunk of bread to sop up the fat, outside and in. No dishes to wash. Bonus points.Photo: BBQ Fat Happiness

Foodie Tuesday: Freshness, with a Hint of Asia

For cold-weather refreshment, try a composed salad of roasted beets, fresh pears and sugar snap peas, dried apricots, ginger, rice vinegar, macadamia or avocado oil, elderflower syrup, chopped roasted salted peanuts or almonds, mint, and black pepper.

Served over Pad Thai noodles seasoned with a little tamari, it becomes a more filling meal. When you add a lovely piece of grilled or poached salmon (how about poaching it in—mmm—coconut milk?) or a succulent roasted duck breast to the plate, it becomes more elegant and yet more satisfying to a hungry guest.

Sake on the side might be a dandy tipple, or perhaps some apple cider (still, sparkling, unfermented or hard) is more to your taste.

Photo: A Hint of AsiaAnother version:

Salad of carrot-shred “noodles” dressed simply with lime juice, ginger syrup and a little avocado oil and sprinkled with plain sesame seeds.

A half-and-half mixture of Pad Thai rice noodles and bean threads, cooked in broth (my homemade chicken broth, in this instance) and dressed with a sauce of blended peanut butter (no additives but salt, please), fresh mint, Thai basil, and cilantro leaves, minced fresh ginger and a sparking of red chile pepper flakes. A little fresh lime juice squeezed over the top, and there you have it, a meal ready to eat that’s a fair sight fresher and zestier than, say, the MRE goodness our military friends get served. This combination works fine on its own as a light meal, or can have quickly cooked prawns or roasted chicken or fried tofu added for a boost in flavor, texture and protein as well.Photo: Fried Rice & Wasabi Eggs

Of course, there’s the old standby as well: fried rice is always easy and tasty. In the photo above, it had toasted almond slices and (barely visible) tiny shrimp, along with soy sauce and sliced water chestnuts, honey and shallots, and peas as tiny as the shrimps. It might be accompanied by something unique each time just to shake things up a tad and keep that sense of freshness humming. Wasabi-deviled eggs are a simple and welcome textural and flavoring pizzazz, along with the ubiquitous garnish we love, sushi ginger. As always, the ingredients I keep on hand may not vary widely, since we have our household favorites and limitations just like anyone else does, but it’s amazing how many variations can be made from different groupings and proportions of them and techniques for the dishes’ and meals’ preparations. Some things never really change!

Thirsty Thursday: Egging Me On to Greatness…

…not really. Just to warmth and contentment. But, given my adoration of nearly all things egg-centric (see what I did there?), it’s no surprise that when I got both thirsty and chilly this week my thoughts turned once again to eggnog, but this time warmed, not cold. If I thought I could procure some fresh ostrich eggs for the purpose, I might well experiment with ostrich eggnog, because every time I make that drink it mysteriously disappears in a trice, and cracking and separating so many eggs at a time does get a little tedious.Photo: Ostrich Eggs

Never mind that, eggnog is worth it.

So this time, I varied it again with both the heat treatment and the flavors, just to please my  palate with a little change from the most recent batches. One part cream, two parts whole milk, a splash of vanilla bean paste, a pinch of salt, a hefty sprinkling of ground cardamom (one of my very favorite spices, as you know, and very holiday-friendly too) and a squirt of honey. I steeped traditional Earl Grey tea in the mix while bringing it all to a steaming scald and then, having separated eggs and put the yolks into the blender at medium speed to fluff ’em up for a while, I poured the hot-hot milk mix in a thin stream into the machine and let it cook up the eggs whilst whipping the whole into nearly as enthusiastic a froth as I was building up in anticipation of drinking it.

I did let it cool enough to not scald me as well, and it was worth the wait. It’s even worth the wait I put you through by forgetting to put up a Foodie Tuesday post this week. Oops. The nog was warming and comforting, as hoped, and with a dash of yolks for protein that made it a great way to stave off any hints of hunger until dinnertime. At dinner I ate a bit of chicken, but I think I can safely say that though I’ve nothing against trying ostrich meat, which I hear is delicious, the likelihood of my finding any of it handily nearby to fix for my dinner in north Texas is about as high as that of my getting its eggs for my eggnog, so I’m sticking with the chicken-and-egg approach for now, and can assure you that at least on this particular day, the egg came first. But I win. Now you know.

Photo: Earl Grey Eggnog

2014 will soon be So Yesterday!

Digital illustration from photos: Pedaling Furiously

Here we go again, pedaling furiously into the next year. Wow! So much hustling and hurtling. So many fireworks going off in every direction! So many possibilities.

First, a little bit of a kindly sendoff for the year-that-was. A tasty dinner together with my beloved, a refreshing glass of brut champagne for an early toast, just in case we don’t care about staying up until midnight. We’re not fussy about holidays and parties and when they get celebrated, and yeah, we’re kind of old geezers about a whole lot of things, and have been since way before we were technically old, or geezers. In any event, as ordinary as we are in most ways, we’re not necessarily conventional in many of them, either, so we sip our champagne at 7:30 pm and wash down our steak and roasted potatoes with it. The apple crostata didn’t set up, so it was better served as applesauce (with the few little bits of the crust that toasted up properly) for dessert, and washed down with homemade eggnog. No big deal; the day when a crostata doesn’t crisp up fully before the filling tries to scorch is neither a new thing nor the end of the world.Photo: Meat & Potatoes are Nothing New

And the eggnog was spiked, after all.

Happy New Year’s Eve!

Foodie Tuesday: For Which I’m Very Thankful

Photo: Thanksgiving in New BraunfelsI enjoy cooking. Not as much as I enjoy eating, or I’d probably bother to get chef training and go to work as a cook somehow, but I do enjoy time well spent in the kitchen. Still, I am ever so glad to let other, and very often better, cooks feed me. I was delighted, for example, to let the hotel staff in New Braunfels (Texas hill country) put together the meal my darling spouse and I shared with a ballroom-full of senior citizens and a small handful of their child and grandchild youngsters on Thanksgiving day. The food wasn’t especially gourmet, being an all-day buffet of extremely familiar and generally uncomplicated dishes long associated here with the holiday, but it was satisfying and traditional, and I didn’t lift a finger to help in its preparation, unless you count buttering my own bread. And I loved that—especially at the end of a long no-breaks haul for my hardworking husband, and in the throes of freshly hatched holiday colds for both of us—we could pay someone else to feed us. I’m grateful every day that I can afford to eat, and nearly always whatever I want to eat, and that sometimes others will do the fixing for me.

I’m also pleased to have access to foods that are, when I do want to cook, easy to make into something nice to eat. Vegetables almost never miss the mark in that realm for me, even though the aforementioned darling isn’t quite so hot on so many of them as I might be. It still fascinates me that he has, thanks to being a supertaster, an arguably restricted palate, but likes some foods that one might never expect a picky eater to like. He is an avowed avoider of things garlicky and onion-heavy, yet numbers among his joys when choosing a meal such famously garlic and onion friendly cuisines as Italian, Thai, Mexican, Indian, and of course, Tex-Mex. It’s all about how the ingredients are prepared, integrated, and combined, isn’t it. This guy who despises Weird Foods (and to him, they are myriad) will happily eat raw fish—not so familiar at all in America until recent decades—if it’s in the form of well-made sushi. As we draw near to the two-decade mark of marriage ourselves, I still do not presume to read his mind, culinarily speaking, accurately at all times. Not that this assures I can’t or won’t eat what I please, when it pleases me, but it’s easier to accomplish when dining out than when I’d have to prepare separate dishes for us, a thing I’m willing to do only occasionally. Another reason to appreciate visits to restaurants and friends’ tables.Photo: Fresh Onions

While I’m on the subject of vegetal delights, let us then ponder some specifics. And why not start with garlic and onions? The flagrantly fragrant lily relatives are amazingly versatile, able to range from hot and spicy to mellow, even to sweet; in texture, they can be soft, chewy or crispy, depending on their preparation. They can add color and pattern to a dish with their concentric layers, their bulbs and leaves, or they can melt right in and disappear, leaving only their flavor to remind of their presence. Thanks to my partner’s tastes, it’s rare that I’ll indulge in any of the more potent forms myself unless he’s out of town for a length of time, but I still remember how to use them in gentler ways when I’m in the mood. For example, two very different kinds of soup starring alliums: French-style Soupe a l’Oignon, and a Creamy Leek & Potato Soup.

The Creamy Leek & Potato Soup is simple enough to make, but should be done rather slowly to get the best out of the ingredients gently. Leeks must be cleaned very thoroughly to get the sandy dirt and grit out of their layers, and an aggressive approach to the cleaning is fine when they’ll be pureed anyway. So start by trimming the leeks’ green ends well and removing their root ends, then split them in half lengthwise and soak them in a basin or sink filled with cool water before hand-checking them for any remaining dirt. Meanwhile, clean, chop and boil an equal amount of potatoes (skin on or off, depending on the variety and your wish) in water with a couple of bay leaves and a dash of salt. Drain the rinsed leeks, reserve a small handful, then chop the rest into pieces about an inch/2 cm long, and soften them until they’re melting with a slow sauté in lots of good butter. Slice the reserved leek pieces as thinly as possible and fry them until crisp for use as garnish when the soup’s ready. When the potatoes are fully cooked, remove the bay leaves from the water, pour in the buttery leeks, and puree the water, leeks, butter, and potatoes into a thick soup, thinning it to your preference with cream or half-and-half. Season to taste with salt and pepper, top with a spoonful of sour cream or creme fraiche, and sprinkle some of the frizzled leeks over that before serving.

Soupe à l’Oignon is delicious when made with a chicken broth base. I know, I know: many traditionalists insist that beef broth is the proper foundation for French onion soup. But I always found chicken broth (especially my own homemade stuff) the best fit for the soup’s overall flavor profile. I might even go strictly vegetarian rather than use beef broth in it, knowing how I tend, and if so I would definitely opt for adding some powdered Cremini mushrooms and a splash of Tamari to the roasted mirepoix mix in my veg broth simmer to make it a little more robust before straining it. But my basic recipe always started with the onions. I like plain yellow onions, and slice them into about 1/2″ (1 cm) thick slices after cleaning them. If I’m making the broth on the occasion of the soup itself, I’ll throw the onion skins into it for the beautiful amber color they lend. A nice big pot (even a half-full slow cooker) full of sliced onions with a pinch of salt and a lot of sweet butter can cook slowly and beautifully into a smooth, jammy confit, and that can be used in any number of dishes later, if you save some by vacuum-packing or freezing it.

Last-minute prep of this beauty is simple. Heat the number of desired 1-cup (or so) servings in a heavy pan, and when the onions are just about to stick to the pan, deglaze it with a good splash of dry sherry, broth, or water. Spoon each helping into a heavy bowl, mug, or ramekin. Barely submerge the onions with a helping of broth, whichever kind you have in mind. Top each helping with a slice of well grilled dense, chewy peasant bread. Top the bread with a hefty slice of Gruyère cheese, broil until bubbling and golden-brown, and it’s ready to serve. Not quite ready to sip, though. Try to wait until you won’t get broiled by the hot cheese yourself. Worth the wait. It’s kind of like growing the vegetables in the first place. Patience pays in deep flavor.Photo: Fennel & Carrots

In this regard, there’s a whole range of marvels in the vegetable world that are only made more lovely by roasting the veg. Take fennel. The homely bulb is somewhat celery textured and mildly licorice flavored in its garden-fresh state. Generally speaking, I hate licorice. But with a light roasting in a bit of oil (preferably olive or avocado) or butter, fennel becomes an ethereal and delicate variant of its former self that I really do enjoy in small amounts. Swell in a combined vegetable roast; fabulous in a bouillabaisse or cioppino. Throw some herbs, carrots, and onions, along with masses of seafood, in the tomato-based broth, and with that whisper of perfumy fennel as a top-note, you have some magical brew.Photo: Radishes

Beetroot is a master of flexibility, whether as the star of the moment or as a sweet and sultry mystery ingredient in a dish. Even the homely radish raises the possibility of delicious dining, when kindly handled. The old standby of a radish sandwich (just thinly sliced, lightly peppery radishes served open-faced on sturdy but refined white sandwich loaf slices, heavily buttered and lightly salted) is a fine place to start. An icy-spicy salad of sliced radishes, fresh mint chiffonade, and sliced sweet apples (something like Fuji, Jazz, or Pink Lady) in a light dressing of rice vinegar, macadamia oil, sugar, a grind of black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Of course, I can’t give you actual recipes for my foods, being almost constitutionally incapable of replicating the quantities and combinations of any dish I’ve made. I vary what I’m preparing based on what’s on hand, and I’m awful at following existing recipes, so you should take what say with a pinch of salt, too. Something that rarely hurts the preparation of a fine vegetable, by the way, a pinch of salt.

The other instructive clue I’m happy to share with you about vegetable preparation today is, of course, the efficacy and beauty of somebody else doing the work. Works for me!

Foodie Tuesday: Worth Getting Out of Bed

On some rare occasions, it’s actually worth getting out of bed before noon-ish. When the breakfast is that good, you know you’ve accomplished something, because I have no intention of cracking my eyelids open any earlier than I absolutely must. Sleep is the one thing I crave more deeply and often than food, and you all know how much I covet good eating, so it takes the prospect of great culinary splendor to drag me from the comfort of my bed one minute before I am good and ready to do so on my own.Photo: Breakfast in Budapest

Since I’m generally the one responsible for putting breakfast, if any, on my own plate, you can guess how often I’m likely to spring into action to see such a meal prepared and presented. I may have some lovely dreams about breakfast, but I prefer to enjoy them while still firmly ensconced in bed. When I do break my fast, it’s far more likely to be with brunch or even lunch than anything earlier, given my druthers.
Photo: Bulle med Kardemumma

I tend to make exceptions when I’m traveling. Often, the causes for the expeditions are beyond my hourly control, so if I have to be up before my internal alarm is interested in my arising, I will generally take advantage of any good food being offered by my hosts, whether they’re homeowners hospitably letting me invade their personal space or hotels with in-house breakfast accommodations. These pictures, for example, come from the summer’s travels and represent foods that went a long way toward ameliorating the agony of having to get out of bed before it seemed the rational thing to do. If anyone is to have half a hope of maneuvering me out of a comfy sleep any time before my body would grudgingly agree to that negotiation, it had better be, at the very least, with a magnificent cardamom roll (bottom photo, from Sandhamn, Sweden). Or perhaps the mind-bendingly gorgeous and seemingly endless spread offered in the palatial breakfast room (top photo) of our hotel in Budapest this summer. Otherwise, you can trust me when I tell you that it’s advisable to let sleeping dogs lie.

Foodie Tuesday: Chili with a Chance of Quesadillas

Photo: Slowpoke ChiliIn the cooler parts of the year, my fancy often turns to chili. It’s hot and hearty, filling and lightly (my versions) spicy, and it can be made in big batches and frozen in smaller ones for later ease of meal preparation. And I am quite open-minded when it comes to chili. I say this with full knowledge that as a Texas immigrant I risk censure, if not being thrown bodily into someone’s smoker. But of course, one has only to do a quick online search for Texas Chili to discover that while there are certain characteristics generally accepted as required for any chili to qualify for the Texas stamp of approval, the variety of actual recipes is just as broad and full of little surprises as the flat and arid plains of West Texas. And trust me, that’s going some.

The central tenet of Texan chili religion, as far as I can tell, is that it is meat-centric and it contains no beans. Northerners and other heathens are quite accustomed to thinking of meat as just another potentially wonderful addendum to a stew-like, tomato-y dish characterized by its spices rather than its more concrete contents, and I confess that I find it a little surprising and somewhat confusing to see “chili con carne” listed on a Texan menu, under the circumstances, but meat does seem to be the universally assumed Truth about good Texas chili. I am happy to make or eat all-meat chili, but I’ve nothing against chili with beans, with or without meat, or even a lot of other sorts of chile spiced vegetarian dishes. The latter are rarely what I would consider chili, myself, but if the texture and flavor profile of the concoction suggests that identity, I’m not going to waste valuable eating time on arguing the point.

You notice that I do differentiate between chili and chile, but that’s a simple linguistic issue in which the tongue plays only a minor role, not the happier and more significant one of tasting: chili is the dish seasoned with chiles, the spicy peppers or capsicums. Many use the spellings interchangeably, and there is no problem with that in my mind, either; I am always more interested in how these things play out on my palate than on my linguistic palette. In any case, it is the flavor of these deviously delicious capsicums, combined with a few other characteristic tastes, that most readily identifies a dish as chili to me.

I have nothing against making what I call ‘instant chili’* when time is short and the appetite yearns for that warming food. Since it’s the spice blend that carries the main weight of the dish’s identity, as long as I have that handy I can make what I think is a pretty fine facsimile of the long-cooked treat. So what are the flavors that I most want my chili to have?

Chiles. My favorite ways to introduce them to my cooking include, at various times, a number of possible dried, crushed, and/or powdered versions of capsicums, sold by spice companies as Chili Powder or Red Pepper Flakes or, simply, as individually named ground peppers or whole dried pods. While the pods of dried capsicums can certainly be made into a nice dusty powder in a good mortar, or can be rehydrated and pulverized to a paste (with a stick blender or food processor is most efficient), they are easier to keep whole and ground to powder in a dedicated spice grinder, like my tiny and cheap old electric coffee grinder that has never even met a coffee bean. I always have my go-to chipotle-spiked salsa in the kitchen, and that’s an easy ingredient to use as well. My favorite, though, is to mash or blend chipotles canned en adobo. I find San Marcos brand delicious even though they have never deemed it worthwhile to change their misspelled label. See? I’m not that picky about linguistics.

The other spices and flavors that I most care about putting in my chili are cumin, smoked paprika, a bit of black pepper, garlic powder, freeze-dried minced shallots, and usually a bit of oregano (Mexican oregano, if I have it). Cumin is the second-most characteristic spice flavor in this and many other Tex-Mex or Mexican foods, and having a kitchen bereft of that spice would leave me feeling like half a person. So make sure there’s plenty of warming, soul feeding, earthy cumin in my chili. And salt! But I don’t add much of that during the process, because of course one of the other secrets to chili is its long, slow melding of flavors, and if I’m making ‘instant chili’ it’s going straight to the bowls of individuals who will choose how salty they like it.

What is this ‘instant’ chili*, you ask? Just a quick fry-up of ground meat (usually beef, but whatever minced meat I have on hand, mixed or singly) with the aforementioned spices, dosed with enough tomato sauces (salsa, tinned tomato sauce/puree/pieces/paste) to make a nice thick stew, and if I want them, tinned beans—black beans, kidney beans, pintos or black-eyed peas or (a little White Trash favorite of mine) field peas, whatever shelled, cooked beans I’ve got on hand. When one is hankering, one makes do.Photo: Slowpoke Chili

When one has oodles of time, one makes the real, slow-cooked stuff in quantity. You could call it a name I think appropriate enough:

Slowpoke Chili

I start mine with a batch of homemade bone broth. Then, after preparing dried beans (I like to mix black beans, pintos, and small kidney beans for a fun range of colors and textures), I cook them in some of that good broth. Meanwhile, the meat chili is essentially a separate preparation: I like to put a batch of beef in my slow cooker, well covered in more of the same broth and seasoned with the spices and peppers I choose for the occasion. I use a mixture of coarsely ground beef and cubes (about 2 cm or 1 inch) of stew beef, and the amount of fat in even high-percentage ground meat is generally balanced out by the lean toughness of stew cuts, so I don’t need to skim the cooked meat-broth combination at all. If I’m putting any vegetables into my chili, those will almost always be mirepoix and sometimes, sweet capsicums. I’m less of a fan of green capsicums (bell peppers) than of the milder, less burp-inducing red, orange and yellow ones, but if bodily noises were really a serious issue, I’d hardly be making chili at all, would I. Wink-wink. Preparing the beans properly, if they’re included in the mix, does make a difference in that regard, anyway.

When I have vegetables to add to my chili, I pre-cook them with a slow sauté in butter, both enjoying the bit of caramelization and the butter itself as added flavor elements, and then they can jump in the pool with the meat. Whether with vegetables or without, the meat is likely to cook at a very low heat for at least 24 hours, if not more. I enjoy the freedom to potter around and do other household tasks while sniffing that great perfume for a long time, as it builds the appetite while infusing the flavor. Somewhere in that day or three, the meat (and veg) will have absorbed most of the broth, and I’ll add my tomato elements. While the spice blend is perhaps the identifying signature of chili, it’s no chili to me without good tomato flavor, so again, I add about enough to make a fairly soupy spaghetti sauce consistency, knowing that eventually the cooked beans will be added, or in the absence of beans, the meat and veg will soak up yet more of that tomato goodness.

This is less of a recipe, as you know is pretty typical of my approach in the kitchen, than a guide to possible combinations that will please me. The proportions are different every time, and whether I add beans, or even vegetables, is a matter of mood and company more than a matter of Texan patriotism; I am, after all, a Northern invader. But I can tell you, it’s generally pretty darn good stuff. Add a few tender corn tortillas that have been layered with salsa or tinned enchilada sauce, plus cheese: cheddar, Monterey Jack, Cotija, Queso Blanco, or any such blend or substitution of similar types of mild and sharp, melting and melt-resistant chewy cheeses that suit your fancy and then heated through. If that meal doesn’t fulfill your chili dreams, there are always a multitude of cooks around here who have what they will assure you is the one, true, Texan article.Photo: Quesadilla or Enchilada?

Foodie Tuesday: Medium Rare

I know all thoughts hereabouts turn to turkey at this time of year, but not everybody (even the meat-eaters among us) craves turkey, whether they’re celebrating Thanksgiving or not. Why ever eat something that you’re not wild about or hungry for just because tradition seems to dictate it? You’re free to be just as thankful for a fabulous steak dinner as for a roasted turkey, especially if you consider how little our modern image of Thanksgiving turkey dinners probably resemble the original feast they’re meant to commemorate.

And a good steak needn’t be a terribly rare thing. I used to avoid serving it not out of dislike but because I was sure it was too hard to prepare it nicely. Somewhere along the line, fortunately, somebody set me straight on that. If I can heat a pan to just slightly over medium high heat and own a timer, there’s not much excuse for being fearful about it.Photo: Medium Rare

What I learned was so simple that it seems laughable, but then that’s how I operate in the kitchen. This self-educated cook has a doofus for her teacher. Here are the incredibly easy things I learned to do that make steak dinner—with a fairly perfectly medium rare steak in the midst of it—a possibility simple enough I don’t hesitate anymore.

Let the steak be the star. Get the nicest quality cut you can afford for the occasion, at best a well-marbled 1 to 1-1/2 inch (2-3 cm) thick grass-fed beauty; pat it dry, coat it liberally [no matter what your political leanings] with salt and coarsely ground black pepper, or a spice rub if that’s your wish, and let it sit a few minutes absorbing that seasoning while you heat up your heaviest skillet on a middling-hot flame or burner. I love my cast iron skillets best of all for doing steaks. Melt a big dollop of good fat to coat the already fabulously seasoned skillet, and when it’s rippling with heat (but not smoking), gently lay in those steaks. One massive one that almost fills the pan can of course be cut up afterward for sharing, or several smaller ones put in together; just make sure that whatever’s in there has room—if it’s crowded in the pan it’ll steam rather than sear. That would be sad.

When the skillet has been made hot enough for the fat to shimmer in it and the steak is in place, expect it to act like a slightly irritable cat: that steak and the frying fat will hiss and spit a little. You might want to stick a splatter screen on top if you’re fussy about stovetop cleanliness, but it’ll wash off easily enough later if you don’t care in the meantime. What fat should you use? Avocado oil is great, if you can get your hands on some, as it has a high smoke point; for straight-up beefy flavor, you can hardly beat clean beef tallow, but it’s not too common to have that on hand (I keep the skimmed fat from my bone broth for such things at times); bacon fat is a flavorful alternative. Ghee or clarified butter is probably my favorite. Whatever you choose, I recommend something with a high smoke point to give you the ability to get a good, caramelized sear on the exterior of the steak without turning the inside of your house into a smelly barbecue pit full of tarry smoke.

But enough about heat and smoke and fat! The steak, still, is your starring player. What to do with that loveliness? Not much. Leave it alone! When it’s in the skillet, let it sit and sizzle completely untouched for about 4 or 5 minutes. The bottom edge should show you just a hint of the beautiful dark brown crust building below, and you’ll flip it over and do the same thing. The next thing you do is: some more Nothing. When you get a whiff of that superb, incredibly tempting scent of beef perfection as both sides have browned gloriously, you will want to stick your fork right into it, but don’t. Wait. Take the steak out of the skillet and let it rest on a warm plate for at least five or ten minutes while it finishes cooking from residual heat, and reabsorbing the juices that will all run right out of it if you cut into it too soon.Photo: Skirt Steak

When you think you have suffered enough, wait thirty seconds more, and then you can pounce on that steak. While I’m waiting for my steak to be ready, I distract myself to prevent premature steak attacks. I deglaze the pan with a splash of Jack Daniel’s black label tastiness and a smack of salted butter, as often as not, to pour every bit of remaining goodness back onto the steak with a lagniappe of kindness. I make sure the salads, sides, and other accoutrements of the meal are all at table and all ready to play their supporting roles to the marquee meat. If all of that hasn’t kept me in check for quite long enough, I’ll just have to risk it, because I’ll have been sniffing the air like an unchained werewolf, and y’all had better get out of my way now and settle down to your own plates of steak and we’ll all be safe and happy, at least until the next full moon. Or steak dinnertime.