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: Advantageous [Gifted] Food

Starting the preparation of a meal with fabulous leftovers given to me by friends after I’ve dined at their place is truly one of the most cheering and hunger-encouraging ways to go to the task. Food that was delicious in itself, made more so by having been prepared for me by good friends, and now the excess of which has been gifted for yet another meal’s foundation, becomes an almost perfect centerpiece for another delicious and happy meal.

The gift that shaped such a duo of meals recently was grilled pork tenderloin. Our friends served it hot from their patio grill along with an assortment of glorious side dishes and the grand finale of homemade pie, all of this well-seasoned with beautiful, comforting, joyful good company. Fresh garden salad, baked potatoes, vegetable crisps, and that succulent, clean-flavored pork tenderloin. I didn’t even pretend to resist when I was offered some of the remaining roast to take home at the end of the day.Photo: Grilled Pork Tenderloin

My version of the meal went in a little different direction, any attempt to copy that event exactly being doomed from the start, but I knew I wanted to keep the simple excellence of that roast’s flavor as the centerpiece. It was made for such things. I already had a variant sort of loaded-baked-potato in my refrigerator, so I used the cheese, cream, and bacon filled mashed potatoes, deepened with smoked paprika, there as the stand-ins for the day. Not having had any success with growing greens, I thought store-bought ones might seem like a little bit of a come-down after the previous dinner’s, so I skipped salad. Peas, instead; peas barely cooked in a batch of brown mushrooms that had been marinated and cooked in Tamari, dry sherry, and butter and then cooked until hot enough to warm the peas without further time on the cooktop.Photo: Mushrooms and Peas

I made a compote of fresh pears with lime juice, maple syrup, and butter and seasoned them with a splash of homemade vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a healthy pinch of ground cardamom. I guess I must’ve been in mashing mode after the potatoes, so I just cooked the pears down until they, too, could be mashed, and I finished the pork the same way I’d finished the peas: got the pear sauce good and hot, laid the slices of pork loin on top of it, put the lid on the pan, and took it off the burner, letting the sauce steam the meat through to warm it once more. Dinner was delicious. Again. Now, isn’t that twice as nice?Photo: Pork Tenderloin Dinner

Foodie Tuesday: Mixed Grill Girl

I’m married to a person whose fondness for vegetables is, shall we say, somewhat limited. Fruits, yes; starches, yes; seafoods and meats, yes and yes. Veg, not so much. He’ll eat some quite willingly, but he’d make a fairly poor version of a vegetarian. Me, I love many kinds of vegetables, along with all of the other foods, but I am a pescetarian and carnivore as well, so I don’t mind having the occasional festival of meat kind of meal.photo

We had a friend join us for dinner today, a person whose leanings are not far different from my spousal-person’s, so it seemed like a fine time to indulge in a freezer-freeing festival of the mainly meat sort. I had a small but solid hunk of grass-fed beef waiting to be enjoyed, a quartet of all-natural bratwurst all ready for a taste test, and the goofy woven square of bacon lying atop my cheesy potato-mash dish in the freezer drawer in quiescent quiet to prepare for use as well. Now I have a lot of space that I didn’t have in the freezer. Of course, I’ve got quite a bit less space in my innards at the moment than before. Yup.photo

So we had our mixed-grill meal together and had fun. Bratwurst, simmered for a long time in a bottle of Shiner Bock, until the beer was syrupy and the sausages fully cooked. The potato mash was quickly heated through and ready to go to table. The beef got cut up into small steaks and pan-seared in avocado oil, with just a little sea salt. Yes, we did in fact have a vegetable, too: peas. Tiny peas, steamed and served with lemon-mint butter, sweet salted butter mixed with minced fresh mint leaves and grated lemon zest.

All of this certainly sated the hunger for savories. That can, in turn, trigger the sweet tooth response. So there was dessert. Probably the richest version of a chocolate pudding I’ve concocted to date, dressed with honeyed peach slices.photo

Rich Chocolate Pudding & Peaches

Pudding: blend 3/4 to one cup each of whole milk yogurt and coconut milk, about 1/4 cup of raw honey, a pinch of salt, a splash each of orange liqueur (homemade months ago from mandarins, juice and zest both, with toasted coconut and brown sugar and vodka), vanilla and almond extracts, and three large eggs, and cook them gently until thickened. Add a bunch of yummy dark chocolate pieces and melt them down. I used 14 pieces of Dove dark chocolate, and just let the residual heat of the thickened custard melt them as I stirred. The coconut milk left the mixture just a tad less than perfectly smooth, so I used the stick blender to make it all silky. A stint in the fridge before dessert time finished the thickening and glossing and it was all ready to serve.

With topping. I took 2 cups of sliced frozen peaches and cooked them gently with a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons each of butter and honey, a teaspoon of almond extract, and spices to taste (I used allspice and cardamom). Spooned at room temperature over the chilled pudding, they gave just enough brightness and freshness to jazz up the rich pudding and fool me into thinking I wasn’t overindulging in dessert after overindulging in dinner. My style entirely, and I think you do know what I mean. Sorry? Not the teeniest whit.

Foodie Tuesday: Rinse and Repeat

You all know what a fan I am of leftovers and ‘repurposed’ ingredients. Most of the foods I’ve been fixing lately have been a continuation of that tradition of mine, especially because it’s been a particularly busy time around our place. We’ve had the usual spate of spring concerts and recitals, more than the usual number of social and business-social events at home and other places, and planning and preparation for a large quantity of upcoming happenings. The garden’s been coming in at top speed. I’ve been trying to clean house more seriously than I had in a long time, because it’s really overdue and I’d love to sell off and give away a lot of underutilized Things. Oh, and I’m trying hard, really I am, not to fall behind with my writing and artwork.

That latter means, naturally, keeping my blogging current, but in addition it means working on two art commissions—one a super-fast turnaround project I just got a few days ago. It also includes attempting to continue with the development of several books to follow up on the one I published in January.

I’m neither complaining nor bragging, just stating a truth that is pretty much like the daily one facing the majority of people I know, each with his or her variations on the details. And it reinforces my attachment to quick, simple, reusable and flexible ingredients and dishes more than ever. Today, for example, I made and froze what will (I’m certain) be a delicious potato side dish for later this week, when friends are coming over for a casual dinner visit. I used a combination of a smashed microwave ‘baked’ potato, a handful of chopped and mashed leftover french fries—good hand cut ones from our favorite old school steakhouse—a handful of crushed leftover potato chips, and enough leftover pimiento cheese from the batch I made for our party the other night to make it all into a cheesy potato casserole. I had some crisped bacon in the fridge, so the casserole is topped with that for the finish. It doesn’t look like so much yet, being in the freezer and all, but I’m expecting to enjoy it quite a bit, along with whatever else I manage to put together for the occasion.photo

Confession: I got an itch to do something trendy, despite being so rarely trendy myself, and I made a lattice out of the bacon. Silly, but kind of fun. And if one is going to wrestle with trying to cook a little in the midst of lots of real life busyness, shouldn’t there be a little bit of silly fun involved? No, wait: a lot?

 

Foodie Tuesday: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s eat.photo

Foodie Tuesday: I’m a Fool for April Fool’s Fools & Other Foolishness

The first day of April, while some may reserve it for pranks and tricks, is to me the perfect day for celebrating the arrival (best if it’s truly imminent) of springtime, and so rather than be a traditionalist about April Fool’s Day and pull stunts on anybody, I prefer to simply enjoy the Tuesday-ness of it this year and think happy food thoughts. My fetish for custards, mousses and creams of all sorts leads me to think that the ideal food for this occasion, since it is the first of April, would naturally be a Fool. You know, sweet fruity stuff folded into whipped cream. Actually, this is pretty much my idea of the ideal food for practically any occasion, and that’s no joke.

Given my predilection for eating too much of too many things, sweets perhaps foremost among them, this comes as no surprise to anyone living.

I know I am not alone in my obsession with dessert-like objects, either. Even my esteemed spouse is not immune to the charms of a classic like a frosty mug of root beer, with or without ice cream floating dreamily in it. One might, for example, find him taking me out to Mr. Frosty for such a treat on the first sunny day when we get a free half-hour, and our sipping in blissed-out ecstasy under the diner’s front canopy while birds flit overhead.photo

But no amount of root beer is quite enough to negate my need for a good Fool, so for this April Fool’s Day I bethought myself of just such a dish, and off to work I went.

Then, of course, the reality of the day intervened. While I thought I was heading to the kitchen to froth up some sweet heavy cream with vanilla and cardamom to layer with black raspberry jam and pieces of canned pears—a marvelous thought indeed—I opened the refrigerator and saw a container of odd ends of Gouda and Brie cheeses that I knew had been patiently waiting for my attention a little bit longer than they ought to have done, and off I went on a highly tangential path. That, of course, is life’s continuous April Fool’s prank on me: every time I think I am headed in one direction, I get sent off in quite another.

Who am I to resist the guidance of the random refrigerator finding?

I put into my trusty cheapo food processor a heap of dried potato flakes, “instant mashed potatoes” that, while I think them quite specious as a substitute for the substantive real thing of a good coarse potato mash, do make great toasty buttered crumbs for toppings, a very fine thickener for sauces and soups and gravies, and as here, good flour for cheesy flat- or short-bread. Along with the potato flakes and cheeses, I put a little butter, a good dose of whole yogurt labne, a little salt, and seasonings: smoked paprika, powdered mustard seed, white pepper and just a dash of mace. I processed it all into a shortbread-like dough, pressed it into a large flat ovenproof skillet, and baked it at about 300ºF/150ºC until it was very light golden brown (about 25 minutes), let it cool in place as the oven itself cooled, and finally turned out the ‘pancake’ to cut into manageable wedges. They’re simple and plain on their own, slightly chewy and very cheesy, but spread with a little additional labne and topped with a couple of cucumber slices and a sprinkle of za’atar, or perhaps just dipped into some good guacamole and/or salsa, they’ll be quite delightful.photo

For now, I’m just munching them plain and marveling at the vicissitudes of that perennial prankster, Life. Happy 1st of April, everyone!

Foodie Tuesday: I have Made a Hash of Things, and I’m Not Sorry

photoThat old expression about making a hash of things implies wreckage and ruination, but there’s a different and much lovelier kind of a hash that results when one finely chops or shreds a bunch of tasty ingredients (leftover or not), mixes them together and cooks them. It’s generally easy to make, and a good way to expand small amounts of ingredients to feed a larger hunger, and when made with a reasonable amount of care and/or experience, it can be very tasty, too. The typical mix of protein (usually meat) and potatoes that serves as the base of a hash is worthy of enough admiration that the technique–I daren’t call it a recipe—has quite deservedly survived for ages.

Still, there’s no reason not to use the methodology with a little twist or two on occasion if mood and ingredient availability so move you. The most recent version appearing on my table lacked both meat and potatoes but still ended up with the texture and character of a fairly classic hash, to my mind. I seasoned the blend with salt, pepper, a little shredded Parmesan cheese and a dose of smoked paprika and then I mixed in an egg to hold the equal parts of cooked rice and creamed corn that I had on hand together a little more like those starchier potato shreds would be, and when at last I put in a fair amount of olive oil, it all fried up in the skillet to a nice crispy-outside cake with a moist interior, and broke up easily with a gentle poke of the fork when I’d loaded that utensil up with a nice creamy bite of dill-seasoned tuna salad. Some fried sage leaves made a nice topper. No potatoes? No meat? No problem.