Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another Oldie but Goodie... Unsolved Chili Mysteries!

Dear Tricia, My husband loves chili...but every time I make a batch it either turns out too cumin-y or too chili powder- y. What is the best combination of spices for a hearty chili? Also, what is the best kind of meat to use? Is bison good? And the beans, which kind should I use there? Please help me please my baby's belly!

*I should warn all of you that if I suddenly go missing, I have been kidnapped by the International Chili Society. I'm wearing grey shorts, a white shirt with a the Star of David on it, and ski boots.*

I thought this would be a pretty light-hearted blog entry... its just chili, right? Well I was wrong. The International Chili Society proved me waaaaay wrong. Yes, there is a society for chili and, yes, it is international. And they have rules. I'm afraid to type too loud in case they hear me and read this and tell me I'm wrong. Shhhhhhh.
First of all, I'm going to give you a quick history lesson. There are two groups of people that can be credited with the first chili. Supposedly, Ranch cooks were one of them. Why? Because they usually had meat that was about to go bad and needed a good way to cover up the impending taste of rotten death. Chile peppers did a nice job covering it up. By stewing the chile peppers and meat together (that's what "chile con carne" actually translates to: chile pepper with meat), they came up with a hearty dish, used up what was going to be thrown away eventually, and the cowboys ate it right up. And if you read my Rocky Mountain Oysters post from Monday, you'll realize that throwing away anything was unheard of... even the cow's family jewels. The second group of people credited with making the first chili are the Aztecs, though theirs harbors a lot more anger. Supposedly, they were so angry about the Spanish Conquistadors invading their lands, that they killed and cut up the Spaniards, seasoned the meat with chile peppers, and ate them. Mmmm... cannibal chili. It gives Spanish Chile a whole new meaning, doesn't it? Can you imagine Fox News doing a story on that? "Aztec Cannibals Make Invaders into Chili." They'd probably blame it all on President Obama.
So lets get to fixing your chili, shall we?
First rule: lean meat only, preferably not ground. Lean meat is tougher, but the reason why you want to use it is because you're slowly cooking it in lots of flavorful juices that will tenderize it. So yes, bison is good because its lean. Ground meat will fall apart if its cooked slowly in so many juices, so cube up it up into medium sized chunks. Any stewing meat is ideal, and as a recession bonus, its cheap. Please refer to my "The Beef on Beef and Getting Grilled on Grilling" post for a quick lesson on the different cuts of beef. There's also a pretty picture to look at.
Second Rule: No beans. Since I live in Texas, we're going with Texas-style chili. And Texas-style chili NEVER has beans in it. If you must add beans (Shhhh! Don't let the International Chili Society hear you!), add them after you've finished cooking the chili so that they don't break down into mush. According to the history of chili (and its lengthy), if the cook lived in a poor area, they could bulk up the chili by adding beans, but that was not ideal. If you must disobey The International Chili Society, then just use whatever beans you like, because you're already in going to get in big trouble. And if you don't, then I'm telling on you. You can buy actual "chili beans," but kidney beans and pinto beans are perfectly fine too. Just use what you like best. Its like me and box wine: sure, I'm supposed to drink fine wine out of a bottle, but do I always want to? No. I'm just not that fussy. So... Franzia it is.
Third, we're going to talk about spices. Adding spices to chili is about as personal as picking out underwear, except imagine having 6,000 different types of underwear to choose from. Its exhausting and there is no right or wrong choice. What I learned from "Chili Cookoff Confidential" is that its not so much about what spices you use, but when you put them in. This is what's called a "dump." Go ahead and laugh... I did. And the fact that I'm talking about dumps and underwear in the same paragraph is purely coincidental, I promise. But the chili pros swear by mixing up all the spices at the beginning of the cooking process, and adding them to the chili in 2 or 3 "dumps" along the way. You add the first dump when you cook the meat. The second dump goes in when you're adding liquid to the meat to make the gravy. And the third dump goes in right before you finish cooking the chili. This is actually a really smart idea because spices change flavor as they cook, and in the case of cumin, it tends to get a little bitter. So you're probably adding the right amount of chili powder and cumin, but not at the right time. Whether or not you use two or three dumps seems to remain controversial in the chili world. But again, there are also 6,000 different types of chile powder to choose from, so there is no possible way to be right or wrong here. You'll also get better results by using different types of chili powder together, not using one kind. This makes the flavor of the chili more robust and complex, not just spicy. If you can find it, chimayo chili powder is my absolute favorite. And anytime you happen to travel to the southwest, especially New Mexico, make an effort to buy different regional types of chili powder that, most likely, you can't get at home. That's a much better souvenir than a stupid shot glass with the coyote with the bandanna, howling at the moon. God, I hate those.
So in conclusion, remove the beans, use lean meat, and add your spices in separate "dumps. " That should help your chili dilemma and fill your husbands belly with happy results. For more information on chili, check out the International Chili Society's website, www.chilicookoff.com. And if I suddenly go missing, that should also give you a hint to where kidnapper took me.

**Shortly after this blog was posted last year, Michael (who is now one of my favorite people in the world) from the International Chili Society contacted me and had me judge one of their cook offs in San Antonio. Turns out they're really passionate about chili, but have no interest in kidnapping people.**

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Shelby, drink the juice.

Dear Tricia, I love biscuits and gravy, and I really want to know how to make real gravy from scratch. Am I in over my head? Is this something I have any chance of learning before I'm a grandpa?

Biscuits and gravy ARE AWESOME! Its my favorite thing to make for Sunday brunch and I like to get all southern when I make them... you know, quote lines from Steel Magnolias and talk like I'm from Mississippi. And doing my impression of Julia Roberts as she's about to go into Diabetic shock is always a fun bonus. "Don't talk about me like I'm not here!"

No, you're not in over your head. Gravy is actually a really simple sauce that anyone can master. And as a bonus, all you need are a few ingredients. So as soon as you master this recipe, you'll be really psyched that you can have an almost empty fridge but still be able to make gravy.

Here's what you need:

1/2 pound breakfast sausage (you can use ground sausage or sausage links. If you use links, just peel off the casing and use the meat inside. The casing is that weird rubbery thing that holds it all together. Throw that part away.)
1/3 cup flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper

1. Heat up a pan on a stove over medium-low heat (that means if your oven knob goes from 1-9, put it at 3 or 4. Or 3 1/2 if you can't make up your mind. Whatever. Just make a decision.) and put the sausage in it.
2. Break up the sausage into little pieces. I like to use a wooden spoon, but you can use whatever works best for you. What you want to do is "render" the fat, or slowly pull all the fat out of the sausage. If you have the heat up too high, you'll sear the sausage and give it dark color on it and the fat will stay inside. That's a no-no. With gravy, fat is good, so you want to gently ease it on out.
3. When the sausage is fully cooked, add the flour and start stirring. What you're doing is making a "roux", which is a cooked mixture of fat and flour. The flour is what's going to thicken up your gravy, but you need to cook it a bit first so that your gravy doesn't taste like paper mache. (Not that I know what paper mache tastes like. Especially not because I tasted some in 1988 when I was making mummies out of action figures with my cousins.) So stir and cook, stir and cook, and wait until the flour starts to turn a little golden. Go ahead and give it some color... you're not going to burn it as long as you keep the heat at medium-low.
4. When the flour has some color on it... like the color of apple sauce, add the milk. Now you're going to need to use a wisk. Stir the milk and sausage and roux together and try to wisk out any lumps. (Not to be confused with pieces of sausage.) Keep wisking and let the milk get really hot. As it gets hot, the flour will thicken it. If its taking like 10 minutes, then the heat isn't high enough. Turn it up a little and watch the magic happen. When the gravy starts to bubble a little, its done. Remember, its going to thicken up as it cools too, and if its too thick, you can thin it down a little with more milk.
5. Season it with salt and pepper. You probably don't need as much salt as you think: the sausage has a lot of that already and is what mainly flavors the gravy.

Now, if you take out all of my babbling, here's the quick instructions:

1. Cook sausage over medium-low heat.
2. Add flour, stir, and cook until golden.
3. Add milk and wisk until thickened.
4. Season with salt and pepper.

Just like that. 4 easy steps, 3 main ingredients: its one more item that you can add to your list of "things that aren't rocket science." On a side note, you don't always have to use sausage- my Grammie Sue (who was awesome because she crocheted little crafty ducks that were jelly bean holders and when you squeezed it, a jelly bean would pop out of its crocheted butt) used chip beef, and you can also use bacon. Whatever floats your (gravy) boat.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Demystifying Polenta: Its Just Ground-Up Corn!!!

Dear Tricia, Polenta is intimidating me. It's cornmeal so I think that I like it, but I both of my experiments have been failures. The first time it was all my fault. I burnt it and take complete responsibility. The second time, Polenta puffed up it's big Italian chest, bit it's thumb at me, and got lumpy. It tasted okay, but I felt gypped. Maybe I didn't "rain the grain" properly. I don't know. Also, I can buy polenta in both the bulk and refrigerated sections of Whole Foods. What's that about? I suspect the tubes of polenta are there so I can be lazy, but the recipes I find always call for the grain.

Yeah, polenta has this really intimidating reputation for being some kind of elusive magic food that no one can master, not even Bruce Lee. To add to the hype, there was an article about it in the New York Times earlier this year called "Taking the Fear out of Making Polenta." I think that's really sad and ironic because polenta started out as a peasant food way back in the day. Those peasant dudes didn't have to go to culinary school to figure it out: its just porridge. Don't be afraid of food. Have fun with it, and if you mess up, then just start over or try it again some other time. Okay, off my soap box now.

The whole "rain the grain" concept: forget about the term. Let's not over complicate what "slowly sprinkling the cornmeal into the water" is. Its cooking, not meteorology. Even my Bible, (and every other professional cook or chef's Bible) The Professional Chef, doesn't use that term. You're making a big bowl o' gruel. Not a big deal. And when it comes to who's higher on the food chain, you will always win over polenta, hands down.

Alright, so traditionally you boil salted water in a pot, and slowly sprinkle the polenta in while you stir stir stir. When it all has been added, turn down the heat and keep stirring to prevent those naughty little lumps. Its not a quick process- give yourself at least half an hour- and if you don't stir enough, you'll get lumps. If you have the heat up too high, you'll also get lumps then. My guess is that you had the heat up too high: both times, not just when you burned it. But just to be sure, I tried a couple of different methods to find an easier way for you to succeed next try.

First try: Alton Brown's method. While I'm not a big fan of the Food Network, I do love me some Alton Brown. He's kind of like a male version of myself, but he cusses less and I probably look better in heels. And that's ok... I love him all the same. Anyway, he has a recipe that makes polenta in the oven, so you don't have to stand there and stir for 40 minutes when you could be doing something else more important. (Like playing Lego Batman on Wii or making margaritas.) Here's the recipe:

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 quart chicken stock or broth
1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces Parmesan, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large, oven-safe saucepan heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the red onion and salt and sweat until the onions begin to turn translucent, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, and saute for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure the garlic does not burn.
Turn the heat up to high, add the chicken stock, bring to a boil. Gradually add the cornmeal while continually whisking. Once you have added all of the cornmeal, cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook for 35 to 40 minutes, stirring every
10 minutes to prevent lumps. Once the mixture is creamy, remove from the oven and add the butter, salt, and pepper. Once they are incorporated, gradually add the Parmesan.

And that's it. You leave it cook in the oven, stir it a few times, and when I tried it... it was completely free of lumps. And super easy, too. I like that, and it probably fits in a little better with your schedule than standing over a stove for longer than an entire episode of "Family Guy."

I wanted to try something else too. I went back to that New York Times article... the one that supposedly takes the "fear" out of making polenta, and I checked out what the author's secret was. He swore by making a slurry of polenta and water first (traditionally, a slurry is when you mix cold water and cornstarch together first before you add it to a sauce to thicken it. This is to prevent lumps), then "add it to not-to-high heat, bring it to a boil, reduce it to a simmer and gradually add more water as needed to keep the mixture smooth and loose."

That's confusing as all get-out. (Its also the same method for making risotto, but that's another blog for another time.) Seriously, not to knock another writer, I mean... he does write for the New York Times and I don't, but it didn't really take the fear out of making polenta. I'd venture to say it adds more fear to it. An amateur would need the Polenta Whisperer to use that recipe. So I tried it anyway and it worked fine too- no lumps. But it took the traditional process and added like 3 more steps to it. It was so much more time-consuming than the oven-method and it gave me the same results. No thanks, New York Times.

So, if I were you, I'd try Alton Brown's method. It gave me lump-free polenta and it also took less time with half the work. About your polenta-in-the-tube question. Its just a convenience product- like buying frozen waffles or TV dinners. If you like to chill polenta, slice it, and grill it, that's why you'd buy it already made in a tube. Not gonna judge... go on with your convenience-loving self if it makes you and your belly happy.

When I get time (and an extra $35 for the annual fee), I'm going to try Cook's Illustrated's recipe for making polenta in the microwave. I'm feeling pretty good about it, but I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, let me know how your next run goes. I always love What the Bleep feedback.

Thanks for reading, and make sure you join my Facebook fan page where I get to interact more with my readers. Word.