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: All Good Things Must Come to an End

That, my friends, is how the old saying goes. But it’s not, ahem, the ‘last word’ entirely. Many such good things are followed by other good things, after all!

And there are some, like the end of summer, that not only presage the arrival of such genuinely fine things as, say, autumn, but also can be celebrated at their conclusions with festive eating and drinking and other kinds of pleasurable activities that do much to ameliorate any pain of loss.

Some such celebrations are marvelously simple: when the summer is waning, it’s time to indulge in a last gleeful feast or two focusing clearly on the seasonal joys of fresh produce. It needn’t be any more complicated than a marvelous unfussy riff on classic Caesar salad, a glass of sparkling mineral water, and maybe a slab of rustic peasant bread decked out with cool sweet butter or a nice grassy olive oil.Photo: Great Caesar's Ghost!

One little notch upward might give you a Tex-Mex picnic, also uncomplicated and fresh and easy to eat. My recent one took the Southern familiar pimiento cheese and gave it a slight T-M twist when I blended Tillamook’s four-cheese combination of cheddar, Monterey Jack, Queso Quesadero and Asadero cheeses with chipotle salsa and a little butter to hold it all together smoothly. Then I layered this cheese spread with sliced smoked turkey breast between soft white corn tortillas into a little stacked torta. This little goodie makes a nice treat of a light lunch with some equally Tex-Mex pickled okra and a batch of fresh vegetables and other finger foods like black olives, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrot and celery sticks, and so forth. All washed down with some cold iced tea or fresh-squeezed lemonade, it helps take the edge off of losing summer for the year.Photo: Tex-Mex Pimiento Cheese Torta

If that’s not quite enough, there is always the warm glow that comes from indulging in the most perfectly ripe and gorgeous late-season produce in all its naked glory. Really, is there anything more soothing and refreshing and lovely than biting into a peak-ripe pear or apple or peach and letting its juice just slide down your throat like a mystical elixir of life?Photo: Peaches

Well, okay, there is that possibility of punching up the effect just a tiny bit further by letting slices of that sweet, juicy fruit swim lazily in a pool of lemon- or limeade, a light and sparkly soda, or (as pictured) a marvelous chilled—even, if it’s as hot outside as it was on the pictured occasion—gasp, iced! rosé or white wine. Sipping the very slightly infused drink until those lovely, tender bits of fruit are easier to catch and eat; that is a mighty nice way to bid a fond farewell to the tag-end of summertime. And if you’re a mom or host who appreciates kids’ need to fish out the pieces of fruit with their already sticky hands, that’s great, but you can always put the fruit chunks on skewers, freeze them into fruit-sicles, and use them first as drink chilling stirrers, then as dainty fruit pops. All quite in keeping with the background music of the sprinkler running one last time and the neighbors’ lawn mower getting one last bite out of the grass. Photo: Iced Peaches in Rosé

Foodie Tuesday: The Daily Grind Need Not Grind Us Down

When I did a bit of checking on it, the name of my variant of Shepherd’s Pie seemed to be, by rights, ‘Pastel de Carne y Patatas’–but you know me, I can’t stick to proprieties very well. So I named it the more mellifluous sounding ‘Pastel al Pastor’, thinking as I do that shepherds get very short shrift in this day and age and can use a little flattering attention. What the dish is calls for it anyway, for it’s a rustic Mexican-tinged take on the comfort-food standard Shepherd’s Pie. In any event, like many longtime popular recipes, it got its start partly by using ground or minced meat, a hallmark of well-fed poor people’s diets since the cheaper cuts of most meats can become tenderer and allow much more expansive fillers and the disguise of plenteous seasonings in order to be palatable while still being relatively affordable.

Rustic and comforting it may be, but the simplicity of the end result in this recipe belies the multifaceted process by which it’s made. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it can be made in large quantities and frozen in smaller batches between times, so it can easily become a quick-fix dish after the first preparation. Shepherd’s Pie, in the vernacular, derives from the longtime concept of Cottage Pie, which in turn originated when cooks began more widely using potatoes to stretch those more expensive ingredients of the meal, the meats. Typically, these pies (and there are versions of them in an enormous number of countries, cultures and cuisines) are simply meat dishes, often made with the ‘lesser’ cuts or a mixture of leftover meats, with a potato crust. Probably the most familiar of them here in the US is the minced meat (and often, vegetable) mixture topped with mashed potatoes that is served in many a British pub and home kitchen and that we co-opted in our own American ways.

Mine, on this occasion, was to veer as I often do toward Mexican seasonings and enjoy my own little twist on the dish.photoPastel al Pastor

Seasoned minced or ground meats, topped with vegetables and mushrooms and gravy and served over smashed potatoes make altogether a hearty and countrified dish, not at all difficult to make but taking a little bit of time because of its individual parts. I make this in a generously buttered baking dish both because it’s easier to clean afterward and because–you guessed it–I love butter.

The bottom layer of the dish is made by frying a mixture of equal parts ground beef, pork and lamb, seasoned freely with salt, black and cayenne peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika and lots of cumin. Those without supertaster spouses will likely want to add some garlic powder as well, though it’s not essential. A splash of rich chicken broth or a spoonful of good chicken bouillon adds a nice layer of flavor, if you have it. Next, add a heaping spoonful of tomato paste and enough good salsa to make the meat mixture very slightly saucy, and just as the meats begin to caramelize, you’re done. [My go-to, if I’m not making my salsa by hand, is Pace’s mild Chunky Salsa with a prepared chipotle en adobo blended in thoroughly–I see on their web page that they’re reintroducing their chipotle salsa, so that’s probably fine too.] Drain the fat from the meat mixture and spread it in the bottom of your baking dish.

While the meat’s cooking, you can be preparing the vegetable-mushroom layer. I mixed about equal amounts of small cut carrots, sliced celery and sliced brown mushrooms, covered them with some of my ubiquitous chicken broth and cooked them until tender. Then I pureed half of them with a stick blender, adding a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle en adobo (that’s about a half a pepper), unflavored gelatin and potato flour for flavor and texture, mixed that with the remaining vegetables, and poured it all over the meat. I topped this with a cup or so of frozen sweet kernel corn and got ready for Potato Happiness.

Today’s version of this meal, Ladies and Gentlemen, was potato-fied with leftovers. I had half a baked potato and about a cupful of good french fries in the fridge, and they worked wonderfully when warmed with some cream and a touch of salt and smashed roughly. It would have been just fine to do the typical Shepherd’s Pie treatment of spreading the potatoes over the meat-and-veg before heating the dish through in the oven, but since this was all concocted of things I had around (taco meat I’d made and frozen, salad vegetables and leftover potatoes), on this occasion we just put nice heaps of mash on our plates and spooned the rest over them like meat-and-vegetable gravy.

For the more normal approach, I’d roast, boil or bake potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and combine with cream for the mash and then top the casserole, possibly adding some nice cheese either on top before browning it in the oven (a mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack, for example) or as a fine garnish, a serving-time crumble (cotija on top, anyone?). But ‘normal’ is overrated, and the dish was mighty, mighty tasty even deconstructed in this way. And it’s still flexible–yes, even a dish concocted of multiple leftovers has variety left in it, my friends. Add some peas (so many tasty cottage pies have peas in them), cauliflower, green beans, or any number of other vegetables. Make it spicier. Soup it up into a stew, with potato pieces incorporated. Change the seasonings to Indian and make it a post-Colonial curried version. You get the drift.

Thing is, of course, that this is precisely how the dish was conceived: as a loose general structure into which any number of variables could successfully be introduced, depending upon what was on hand. Save time, save labor, save money. Eat delicious potatoes and whatever flavorful wonders you can afford and imagine to combine under them.

Well, get along with you now, you know how it works. And you can be pretty sure that it’s going to taste good. That’s how folklore ‘recipes’ survive–on flexibility and reliability. Oh, yeah, and great fillers.

Even chicken, which sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to minced meat dishes because it’s left too unseasoned or cooked in ways that make it too dry, can make lovely ground meat dishes with a little effort. In the latest instance, I chose to precook mine in a sort of meat loaf sous vide, keeping the juices and additions in and on it until it was fully plate-safe, but this could easily be chilled in its loaf form, sliced and pan-fried without the intervening hot bath, I’m sure. And a food processor makes the loaf prep a snap, but it can be done with a knife and a pair of hands for mixing, too. In any event, I veered more toward Italy this time with my glorified chicken meatloaf concoction.photoCotolette di Pollo e Pancetta

[About 6 servings.] Mince and mix together the following and shape into a compact loaf: 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (dark meat stays moister), 3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon powdered lemon peel, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons cold butter and 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shallot. Wrap and chill the loaf until ready to fry it, or do as I did: vacuum pack it, cook it sous vide like a confit (low and slow–I let it go overnight), and then refrigerate until ready to use.

When it’s time to fix the meal, cut the loaf into slices about 1/4 inch thick and fry them over medium heat until lightly browned. With a well seasoned iron skillet or a nonstick pan, the butter in the loaf is quite sufficient to keep the slices from sticking, and they get a nice little lightly crispy crust outside their tender middles. I served mine with slices of fried cheese (any slow-melting mild cheese would do for this after-the-fact application, or you can top the meat slices with faster-melting sorts like mozzarella or provolone as the meat cooks) and a simple sauce cooked down from jarred passata (simple tomato puree–I like the Mutti brand passata I used, pure tomatoes with a little salt) mixed with the loaf’s excess juices, salt and pepper and oregano to taste. On the side, little ramekins of rice and buttered green beans are plenty, though of course there’s always room for invention on the plate. The whole assembly, since I’d put up both cooked rice and the confited loaf in the refrigerator beforehand, took not more than fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare.

¡Buen provecho! Buon appetito! Now, stop mincing around and get eating!