After my brother roasted our chicken upside down, resulting in crispy legs and butter-sodden breasts, I recycled the white meat in a pasta sauce. When we failed to eat the whole pot, I dreamt a lazy lunch. Five tablespoons of powdered peppers and tomato sauce switches to chili. It’s a quick-change act that relies on illusion: realer, righteous chili requires a more rigorous (though possibly less alliterative) approach. Nevertheless, a close approximation of Texas, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Washington, etc. can be achieved with a passive raffle through the spice cabinet.
We needed beans, so we walked to the corner deli. I have been buying Caribbean groceries with the mania of a bomb shelter visionary; I want to work my way through a goat carcass, sample every brand of ginger beer, and bake my own sweet rolls. Last night, I settled for a simple substitution: peas for beans. Instead of kidneys or pintos, I bought pigeon peas, more commonly found in Caribbean renditions of “rice and peas” than heartland chili recipes. Firmer and chalkier than my usual bean choices, the pigeon peas were a striking contrast to cooked tomato, shredded chicken, and soft garlic. At work, I ate the “chili” out of Tupperware and picked chicken neck bones off my tongue. None of my co-workers looked twice. Continue reading
Having a spare hour or two in the afternoon, I decided to braise a whole pork shoulder for dinner. Although I run a lot, I could count on the help of a few friends—six to be precise—to finish off the beast. Pork shoulder is intrinsically delicious (oh fat, oh crispy skin, so the ode proceeds), cheap ($1.99 a pound!), and extremely easy to cook. In fact, I left the shoulder in the oven for two hours unsupervised during my evening class. No harm done. It does, however, require time, and time’s attendant, patience, for a proper preparation. Do not undertake a pork shoulder roast lightly: it is not a dish to be trifled with. Continue reading
For my first meal in my new kitchen, I wanted to cook chili, a dish easily prepared in the space of a Lazy Sunday afternoon. Shopping at Fairway, a labyrinthine and beautiful grocery store at 132nd Street, I spied ground lamb. Although Serious Eats offers an excessively complex—almost self-parodically so—beef chili recipe, I prefer a simpler scoop of beans and meat. My dorm kitchen, shared with six suite mates, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare. There’s no room for voluminous ingredient lists, let alone a host of tabletop appliances set aside for processing coffee beans and esoteric spices. Fortunately, great tasting chili is, for me, a matter of imprecision, intuition, improvisation, and an ex-mad scientist’s soul, one turned away from Enlightenment rationalism and embracing of melodramatics. Continue reading
This summer, I took a class on “Reading and Writing Food” at Columbia. Over the next few weeks, I will post a sampling of essays composed for that class.
In My Chili-Charmed Life
In the life of a cook, a single dish can mean more than simple sustenance, deliciousness, or even family. Matzoh brei, tuna fish casserole, cornichons and pate, mint iced tea or waffle cones or roasted chicken with a fine mourning veil of black truffle stuffed under the skin—these foods define identity, a most private self; the food has been invested with a totemic force; it is the excessive metaphor surpassing the pale shadows of real things. Red chili slicked with beef fat is a me that surpasses myself: a being that, once animated, embodies my essential kernel of experience more than words reliably express.
I learned to make chili under my dad’s tutelage. More properly, we learned to coax articulate flavor from peppers and ground meat together. Without recipe or rigorous experimentation, we searched for the perfect chili—a spoonful of fat and flesh bound into miraculous unison, a soup curdled into immortality. Balancing starchy beans against hunks of beef (or pork or turkey or chicken) and perpetually-summer-fresh canned tomato product is an infinitely amusing challenge. Chili Sundays featured our never-same creations, oyster crackers, shredded cheddar out of a resealable plastic bag, Prairie Farms sour cream, and diced red onion. After I went to college, I developed my own chili style. My palette trends towards hotter colors; my palate favors ashcan smoke that draws chipotle and adobo into post-domestic clarity. I paint in Hopper’s and Bellow’s culinary strokes; I cook in the neo-St. Louis school. Yet, my chili enunciates my personality without predecessor or allusion. I am my chili, which can only itself be described in circumambulatory figures.
Somewhere in St. Louis, a chili pot still simmers on low. Now, however, another pot reduces towards perfection somewhere in a New York dorm. I know I’ll often stop and think about my family’s chili dinners, but in my life, I love my own chili, too. Continue reading
In which the venison adventure continues:
After consuming close to my body weight in deer steaks, I still had two-and-a-half pounds of venison. As a chili enthusiast (click here for my pulled chicken chili recipe), I imagined gallons of gurgling deer chili, overflowing pots of spicy beans, flaming cauldrons filled with deer flesh dissolving into ambrosia. Unfortunately, my pantry lacked a few chili staples, in particular certain (necessary) tomato products. Improvisation!
Zach B., Yale University
As a break from restaurant reviewing, I decided to attend a chili cookoff, where student recipes faced off in an epic battle of tomatoes, beans, and of course well seasoned meat. Each diner paid five dollars (donated to the United Way) for an unlimited supply of chili. Out of the twenty two recipes, I particularly enjoyed a soy sauce based chili, a barbecue based chili and a traditional meat, beans and veggies chili, with a healthy kick of spice of course.
Cooking chili requires restraint. Although a culture of “chiliheads” exists, a group of heat enthusiasts with a serious capsaicin fetish, most Americans prefer balance between peppery fire, salt, and acid. In typical Midwestern style concoctions, tomatoes and ground beef help mute requisite chili powder and hot sauce additions. Indeed, Steak ‘n Shake’s maroon version tastes more like stew than spice, a paradigmatic representation of the Missouri preference for meat over heat. Even in St. Louis barbecue, sauces tend towards sweet rather than spicy, allowing the protein’s character to soliloquize uninterrupted. Therefore, chili cookoffs at home involve a game of spice roulette: how much seasoning to add to bring the dish just to the border of acceptable piquancy?
Chipotles in adobo sauce taste like swirls of dust in New Mexico, smoke, bacon, and then a numbing fire that kisses the barest edges of lips and tongue. With a more vegetal heat, grassy and green, serranos cut a stabbing stroke across the palate. Looking down at my peppers of choice, I shrugged. Frankly, I lack any depth in my knowledge of Mexican cuisine: regional variations, proper spicing, correct technique. I do, however, possess a pleasant friendship with Tex-Mex, the sloppy enchiladas and tacos served up at semi-chains and neighborhood start-ups. Chevys, Hacienda, Canyon Cafe. Taco Bell (gasp). I know what a pizza crepe taco pancake chili bag is. And I know how to use it.
Obviously, the quality of cuisine at chain Mexican restaurants usually disappoints. Nevertheless, the authenticity fetish feels more and more tired and inappropriate with each passing “foodie” fad. “We have to go out and get some tongue tacos from that guy with the tiny stand in Queens!” “Yeah, and after that, let’s go get authentic British pub food at The Breslin! Because that’s just what British pubs are like!” For those suffering from an authenticity fetish, every ethnic cuisine produced in America feels vaguely unsatisfying and wrong. Ordinary meals turn into disproportionate disappointments, even if the food tastes perfectly fine. Even delicious.