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: Con Mucho Gusto

So many meals, Latin-inflected or not, are best enjoyed with a nice cold glass or two of sangria. Particularly helpful is the knowledge that sangria has so many tasty potential variations that it can be made the perfect complement to nearly anything. Or substitute for it, if such dire need should arise. But I’ll concede that the many magnificent flavors of the Latin cultures are also, often, what make the sangria so wildly delicious.

In addition, the simplicity of combining the marvelous ingredients for either the food or drink portion of such a meal adds the appeal of quick preparation. While a number of recipes, including many for sangria, are improved by a little time spent melding their flavors together with heat or chilling, the actual labor time might not be terribly lengthy nor the effort especially challenging. Just gather the supplies, put them together in a dish or bowl, and wait for them to come to full fruition. Fruit being, of course, a hallmark of a refreshing batch of sangria.

The dish of the day is so easy it can be assembled and heated in minutes. Even the slowest portion of the prep, the cooking of quinoa, can be accomplished with little trouble, particularly if like me you have a rice cooker. I use a brand of quinoa that requires no rinsing or soaking, and it works easily to prepare it in my rice cooker by combining cooking liquid (usually my ubiquitous homemade broth) with the grain in a 2:1 ratio. I do this in larger batches, refrigerating all but the day’s portion for later meals.photoNestled Eggs [one hearty serving]

In a microwave-proof bowl, put a cup of cooked quinoa and make a hollow in the center of the grain. Break two eggs into the nest and puncture the yolks a little; cover and heat the dish on High for two minutes. [A nice optional variation: stir eggs with steamed fresh spinach leaves that have had the liquid pressed out of them.] Remove the bowl from the oven and top the eggs with a handful of cheese (cotija, queso blanco or sharp cheddar, for example), re-cover, and continue to cook on High for another minute or two, until the eggs are lightly set. Spoon some nice chipotle salsa [see my semi-handmade chipotle salsa hack here] on top, add a tablespoon of cilantro-tequila pesto [just a bunch of fresh cilantro finely pureed with tequila] and some crunchy salt, and serve with a glass of cold sangria.photoCherry-Peach Sangria

Combine a Jeroboam [four bottles] of Cabernet-Merlot blend wine with a magnum [two bottles] of Riesling, one 32 oz bottle of Just Black Cherry juice, 2 cups of dark pure maple syrup, one orange, thinly sliced (including peel), and one 23.5 oz jar of sliced peaches in juice; stir gently to blend, chill, and serve.

Foodie Tuesday: Ten Thousand Things I’ll Never Know

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Nash your teeth over this! Celery, raw . . .

Okay, you are all very well aware that there are more like ten squillion things I’ll never know, but it doesn’t make for as mellifluous a title, now, does it? Ahem. Confession is all well and good, but I might as well please my inner critic, too.

I am referring, in the title I did choose, to the multitude of cool tricks and fabulous skills I am quite unlikely to learn and/or acquire as a chef in this lifetime. Some of them I could undoubtedly get the hang of, if not exactly master, were I to make a dedicated effort. But I’m such a dilettante by nature and so easily moved to any attractive tangent, that such dedication is a fairly rare commodity in my personal performance toolbox. I certainly admire all of you artistes and culinary technicians who have such an abundance of graces in the kitchen, at the grill, and around any old fire pit you can conjure out of architectural rubble, used tuna tins and flammable leaf-mold. And I’ll leave such things to you.

If I were a serious student I might be able to learn how to poach, candy, spherify, souffle, smoke, sear and pulverize the universe of edible things into perfect submission, but I am instead the kid who sits in the corner and stares alternately out the window and down at my left shoelace until galvanized by the lunch bell, whereupon I am first in the cafeteria line and probably sticking my fork into my food well before I have sat at a table. So my hopes of becoming a great chef are limited at best. Part of the problem is getting practiced and patient enough to merely remember what I just did in preparing a dish to have even the remotest chance of either replicating it at some future date or–if it turns out it’s awful–avoiding said replication, at least by improving those things that were unsatisfactory about it in the event. That makes one of the Ten Thousand Things that ranks very high on my list the ability to prepare and eat the same thing twice.

While I’m all for playing Variations on a Theme and enjoying change and novelty, I’m not entirely free of the rather common human urge to indulge in familiar favorites. That means it’s often wisest not to stray exceedingly far from the few techniques I do know and the moderate batch of ingredients that are well-loved in my cookery adventures, or I’m surely doomed to a perpetual cycle of this battle with my limited memory, always eating whatever random concatenation or ridiculous concoction happened to come out of my latest crash course dans la cuisine.

Today, I was faced with a fair fridge-full of unrelated leftovers that, if I didn’t want them to die of old age, needed to be made into something approximating tastiness that I could at least freeze until we would be home to heat-and-eat them. Combined, there were the makings of a whole simple meal; it only required my ‘repurposing’ everything, if that’s not too odd an application of the term, and the time was decidedly now. Tonight the garbage and recycling bins get put out for morning collection, and if we’re not going to actually eat the stuff, it’s clearly better to cut losses before that cleansing event than after it.

So, since the ingredients presented themselves, I prepped three simple recombined dishes as follows. The main course: a BBQ meatloaf of sorts. Sides couldn’t be simpler than yet another version of my mainstay potato casserole and steamed vegetables, and that’s what we’ll have to feed our hunger and clear out the refrigerator this time. What I’ll do with the leftovers of the leftovers is anybody’s guess. I’m quite sure I won’t remember how they got this way in the first place.

Meatloaf probably sounds a bit better, or at least a little more identifiable, than A Hunk of Barbecue-Sauced Meats Put Together, but either way, it’s the simple truth. This loaf came out very tender, indeed, almost to the point of falling apart, so there’s clearly a spot that I could adjust in the recipe, if there were a recipe. Ah, well. I simply took equal parts of leftover pit ham and roast beef (both thoroughly cooked already, obviously) and a little bit of roasted chicken that I had, too–a little under 3 cups of meat in total, I suppose–and put them all together with about a quarter-to-half a cup of barbecue sauce plus two eggs (raw) in the food processor and chopped them all together into a light minced meat ‘dough’, pressed it into a lightly greased loaf pan, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or so. Pretty nice tasting results for so little effort, really. Even better when I will have only to warm it up when it’s time to eat. And when, of course, I will already have forgotten entirely what I did with what ingredients to have made the food.

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Whatever you call me, just don’t call me Late for Dinner . . .

The other food is and was equally easy. The potato casserole this time is a mix of a cup of leftover good french fries (chips) plus one raw Russet plus 1/4 cup of queso blanco, all diced into similar small-sized pieces and mixed with a tablespoon of butter, a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese, and sprinklings of ground black pepper and salt and a small pinch of grated nutmeg and microwaved until the queso was just beginning to melt. I cooled this mix and put it in the fridge, and when it’s time to fix it for eating I’ll put it in a heat-proof container and warm it through thoroughly with a half cup or so of heavy cream. That always gives potato casseroles a nice texture somewhere in between baked and mashed potatoes, both of which I think are pretty fine, and helps the cheeses blend into the mix well.

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I’m always making a hash of things . . .

The steamed veg is prepared in the way that makes the dish, if you can even call it that, the easiest of all of them. Carrots and celery, cut into 1″ pieces and steamed with a pat of butter in a half cup of chicken broth (vegetarians can obviously substitute veg broth, wine, water or juice) plus a splash of Limoncello–that’s all there is to it. This one will get salted at the table because I don’t want to get any of that metallic hint of mixing salt and booze in cooked food that can sneak through when the dish is so wholly uncomplicated. The carrots and celery should mostly speak for themselves. And they will still taste pretty fresh and sweet, even in a day or two, rather than wilted and antique as they would have been had I not preemptively cooked them today.

Best defense is a good offense, so I’m told, and nowhere do I see it demonstrated as often as in getting food at least par-cooked before its shelf life has ended. A pseudo-science I learned because, among all of the other kitchen cuteness I will probably never know is the refined art of getting everything prepared and eaten exactly when it’s at its peak, never mind not having odd-lot leftovers or not losing time, tears and groceries if we get invited out to dinner after I’ve half-prepared a meal so it sits around extra days waiting for our attentions. Perfection in the kitchen? No, never. But this old dog does know a tiny trick or two, and that has kept us alive reasonably well so far.

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Celery, stewed . . . or steamed . . . oh, just hush up and eat your vegetables while they’re hot!

Foodie Tuesday: Meatless had Better Not be Tasteless

 

photoJust because I am generally an unregenerate carnivore, that does not make me averse to vegetarian delights. I am not so silly as that, really, my dears! It’s still very much about great flavor and appetite fulfillment, is it not? Oh–and that glorious connectivity that occurs at table between friends and loved ones, of course. Of course. Sitting and watching the dragonflies and wood wasps and butterflies tumble through the air outside the kitchen window, and the occasional marvel of a buzzing hummingbird or flashy scarlet cardinal.photoBut those non-meaty treats for eating, they beckon too. Oh, yes they do. As long as they’re loaded with flavor, texture, deliciousness and appeal of their own kinds. It’s not too much to ask. For a simple example, let’s consider having a few crackers or pieces of flatbread to dip in a bowl of easily made eggplant spread. When my girlfriend joined me for lunch, I made it the easiest way possible: I took a jar of roasted eggplant (nothing but salt and a little citric acid, for preservative, added in processing), tossed it in the blender with a good dose each of cumin and smoked paprika, topped it in the bowl with some Thai fried shallots, and we dug in to our lunch. A sort of Baba Ghannouj 2.0, perhaps.photoThe other dish of the day was supremely easy, too. Warm quinoa salad. Quinoa, to begin, naturally. A nutty, crunchy salad, because I wanted lots of texture. Sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds. And I wanted something fresh and summery in it, and a little chew to complement the toothiness of the quinoa and contrast with the nuts’ crunch. For the latter, small pieces of queso blanco. Too mild for you? Some snappier feta or goat cheese would do it nicely. But I did brighten it up for that summery aspect. Chopped navel orange, some zest from it; juice, too, along with a little lime juice. A bit of Persian Lime olive oil, a little salt and pepper. I certainly could have added lots of possible further tweaks, as could you, my friends: fresh mint, fresh or pickled ginger, toasted pine nuts, dried apricots or figs; preserved lemon, rice vinegar; toasted coconut; chopped fresh tomatoes or cucumber. No matter how composed, very edible. No fuss, lots of taste. Oh, and no meat. Purely coincidental? Karma? Or just good eating? I know where my own inclinations lead. Oh, yessiree, now hurry up and hand over a fork, please.photo