Texas Chili

I promise this isn’t turning into a food blog (I don’t think?) but after an office potluck on Friday that included my beef chili, the recipe requests came flooding in again, so I thought as long as I was cleaning the recipe up and updating it, I might as well share it here, too.

Some opening remarks…. As with a lot of things, I’m both a traditionalist and an iconoclast at the same time. My chili follows some Texas traditions pretty closely where I feel like it needs to: meat, no beans, minimal tomatoes, use of multiple chiles for a complex taste, masa/corn flour and not wheat flour for thickening. But then, for culinary greatness, there are other places where I buck the traditions, most notably in my use of a roux with the masa flour — it may be weird, but the cajuns are onto something with this, and it really takes the thickness and richness of the chili up a notch. I’m also a little weird in pureeing the onion almost like an Indian curry, but likewise, it thickens the chili and gives it even more richness. Similarly, I like including trace amounts of some “dark curry” spices (cloves, fenugreek, allspice, cinnamon, coriander) along with some extra ingredients for tannic bite (tea, etc), not enough to dominate, but enough to add a lot of complexity.

What seems to make a perfect chili is to create a perfect, rich chord out of the following tastes:

  1. 40% Meatiness – beef, broth, other umami ingredients
  2. 30% Chile Pepper Taste – chiles, chile powder
  3. 20% Earthiness – cumin, coriander, masa flour, cinnamon
  4. Heat – multiple kinds of chile peppers, black pepper
  5. Saltiness
  6. Vegetable Sweetness – tomatoes, red bell pepper, balsamic
  7. Tannins – the chiles themselves have some, but fenugreek, balsamic, tea, red wine, etc, really bring the taste out
  8. Surprise Aromatic Elements – cloves, cinnamon, whiskey, aromatic bitters, along with smokiness from the chipotles, charred vegetables, and/or liquid smoke.

Any ingredients you buy at the store are going to vary in strength (especially the chiles, which are notorious for their variable heat and bite), so ultimately that balance is what you want to achieve, regardless of whether you followed the measurements exactly.

Staunch traditionalists may balk at my ingredients list, but I make an effort to stick with fresh ingredients rather than processed. Also, I’ve won several small scale contests with the basic formula, so I think that speaks for itself.

Ingredients

  • Onion Paste
    • 1 large yellow or sweet onion
    • 1 T cumin seeds
    • 1 tsp coriander seeds
    • fresh ground black pepper (about 1-2 tsp, as you prefer)
  • Chili Paste
    • 2-4 dried chipotle peppers or 1 can chipotles in sauce (or if you can’t find either, see fresh red jalapeños under Vegetables) — Warning: chipotles, especially the canned ones, can turn out much hotter than you expect in the final product. When in doubt, start safe, and be a hero the second time.
    • 1 or 2 whole dried guajillo pepper (de-seeded), or a few dried ancho peppers, or similar, depending on the heat level you want. Chiles de Arbol provide a really nice bitter note, but they’re pretty hot for some people. Feel free to mix and match.
    • 6 cloves garlic (or more, if you’re into garlic)
    • Following ingredients are optional if you’re feeling adventurous:
    • 1/2 tsp cloves
    • small piece cinnamon bark (or 1/2 tsp powdered cinnamon)
    • 1/4 tsp fenugreek
    • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • Vegetables for Broiling
    • If you couldn’t find dried chipotles: 4 red jalapeños
    • 1 large red bell pepper
    • 5 medium tomatoes
  • Roux
    • 1/2 – 3/4 cup (possibly more) corn oil or other vegetable oil
    • 3/4 cup masa flour (often sold as “Maseca” at Latin or African markets)
  • Meat
    • 4 lbs ground red meat (e.g. one of those family size hamburger meat packages, but it’s also fun to experiment with whatever game meats are available. Don’t bother with the lean ones — lean meat gets gristly in chili, and you don’t make chili when you’re working on your beach body anyway)
  • Soup Base
    • Plenty of beef broth (you’ll probably need about 5 cups)
    • 1/2 cup New Mexico chile powder (the higher quality, the better — if you can get your hands on some Hatch chile powder, you’re in business)
    • 2 tsp whole Mexican oregano (regular oregano will work, but you might want to reduce the amount so your chili doesn’t suddenly taste like marinara sauce, as Italian oregano is apt to do)
  • Final seasoning
    • Salt to taste
    • Ground cumin to taste
    • 2-3 T balsamic vinegar and/or 1/2 cup of a bold tannic red wine
    • 1/2 cup really over-steeped black tea (for tannins), or a splash of Angostura or Peychaud’s Bitters also works
    • Around 1 tsp baking soda (to balance acidity of the tomatoes and vinegar, more if you included wine — you want the final chili almost pH neutral)
    • Splash of liquid smoke (especially if you were unable to use real smoked chipotles) – Some people seem to have an aversion to this for some reason, perhaps because it’s the only real “processed” ingredient in the list, so feel free to leave it out if the idea bothers you.

Directions

  1. Broil vegetables: De-seed the fresh peppers (if you’re using them), and cut them, the tomatoes, and the bell pepper into quarters. Place them on a baking tray and broil on high temperature in a toaster oven, oven, or even flame grill them, until starting to blacken. You want them to taste smoky. Don’t worry too much about burning them. Also feel free to pull out some vegetables as they get done, especially if some (e.g. tomatoes) are taking longer.
  2. Onion Paste: Meanwhile, lightly toast the cumin and coriander seeds in a pan until aromatic.
  3. Cut the onion into quarters or eighths, and puree the onion with the toasted seeds and ground black pepper into a coarse paste. Add some oil if needed to aid blending. Set aside.
  4. Chili Paste: Put the chiles and garlic into the blender (including the broiled jalapeños when they’re ready), and puree into a coarse paste. Add some oil if needed to aid blending. Set aside. (If you’re in a hurry you can blend all this together with the onions, but be forewarned there’s a nasty scorched taste chiles can get if they’re overheated, so it’s safer to make this paste separately and add it later under lower heat.)
  5. Roux: Fill the bottom of a large stew pot with vegetable oil until it’s about “one finger” deep. Bring to high heat. Add in the masa flour; it should sizzle in the oil. Stir briskly until it makes a smooth paste, almost like peanut butter, being careful not to let it burn. If it gets too thick, you can add more oil a little at a time. When the masa roux starts to smell rich and corny, quickly scoop in the onion paste and stir aggressively. Again, add a bit more oil if it’s too thick to stir. Get the onion as cooked as you can without burning the roux. As soon as you think the roux is about to burn, pour in about 1 cup of the beef broth to lower the temperature, and stir thoroughly. Lower heat to medium. Trickiest part is done. NOTE: If you DO burn the roux, do not use it or it will ruin your chili. Throw it out and start with a fresh roux (and onion paste if necessary); better to waste those cheap ingredients than the whole thing.
  6. Meat: Add in your ground meat and continue to stir frequently. Heat should be high enough that you’re still sautéing, even with that bit of broth in there. Feel free to add more oil if needed. Continue over medium heat until the meat is starting to brown.
  7. Add in the chili paste and stir for a minute or two.
  8. Add in enough of the remainder of the beef broth to get a soupy texture. Stir in the chili powder and oregano. At this point the chili should have a reddish hue. If not, you can add more chili powder. It seems like a lot, but it really is the foundation of the dish along with the meat and broth.
  9. Reduce heat to Medium-Low, and simmer for a half hour or so, stirring occasionally to scrape the bottom and keep it from scorching. Once the whole pot is nearly at boiling temperature, reduce heat to Low and continue to simmer for a couple of hours, still stirring from time to time to scrape the bottom. Alternatively, you can put the whole pot, dutch oven style, into the oven at around 220°F and then you can leave it more unattended; just make sure it’s an oven-friendly pot with no meltable handles. The longer it simmers this way, the better it will taste.
  10. Finally, once the chili is fully cooked and has been simmering for a while, it’s time to season it. Start with a couple of tablespoons of salt, and stir and salt until it tastes right to you; the amount of additional salt will vary greatly depending on the saltiness of the broth you used, but it’s almost always more than you expect; often I’ll salt the top, spoon up a bit plus salt before stirring it all together, and that way if it’s too much, I can still scoop the excess back off. If you can’t taste the cumin seeds as a prominent note in the chili, generously supplement with ground cumin. Then add the tea and balsamic vinegar. At this point the chili will probably taste a little sour, so sprinkle in the baking soda to return it to its desired savouriness; the baking soda may make it froth up, so add gradually and stir until the bubbles go down each time. Now is when you can also add some liquid smoke for extra smokiness, and additional oregano if desired. Taste and adjust until you’re happy with it.
  11. Additional non-traditional culinary fine-tunings I’ve used to good effect:  soy sauce, vegemite/marmite, fish sauce, or anchovy paste for umami (if you’re desperate you can use browning sauce or bouillon powder, but run the risk of your chili tasting store-bought or too much like gravy). Brown sugar or a touch of molasses for a tiny bit of sweetness, but the key here is earthy sweetness, not saccharine sweetness, and don’t overdo it. Lime juice for a bit of citrus bite (you may need extra baking soda to cut the acidity). A splash of some nice dry tannic red wine or peaty whiskey or an aromatic bitters you like. Have fun with it, but none of these should be in so large amounts as to be individually detectable, just to fill in the missing complexity notes. Do note: If you’re making the chili to share (because that’s what chili is often for) be mindful of allergies or dietary restrictions amongst your friends, especially with any of these fine-tuning ingredients which might otherwise be unexpected in a beef dish.
  12. Simmer for another 15-30 minutes to let everything cook together.

Steak, Texas Style

[Reposted from original blog, by request. Originally posted on Jan 16, 2011.]

We had some friends over tonight as a followup to a promise to show off my Texan roots and make them a “really good steak,” and the first few bites led to questions of, “Wow, this is really tender. And tasty. And juicy. What’s your secret?”

Luckily for the rest of you, it’s not a secret. I’ve been working on my steak-making technique for a while and have no qualms about sharing it, including here.

I. Buying a Good Steak

The first step to cooking a good steak is having a good steak to cook in the first place.

You need to find a decent butcher or meat shop. Occasionally your corner grocery store will have some fairly decent steaks, and for every day “What’s for dinner?” kind of cooking, that’s okay, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you just wanted to make an ordinary steak. We’re making The Perfect Steak, remember?

What you want is a shop that has a large variety of fresh, high-quality meats, and whose staff is knowledgeable to answer your questions about them. The butcher I currently go to has three different grades of ribeye steaks alone, for example. More on that later.

So you’ve found a good butcher. Now you need a good cut of meat. Different people have different opinions on this, but I’m almost exclusively a ribeye fan. Some people like sirloins or filets or T-bone steaks, and those are okay, but for tenderness, taste, and quality, you can’t beat a ribeye. I’ve even been to a couple of premium steakhouses where it’s the only cut they will serve. If you trust me on this just once, and if you still don’t like it, you can go back to whatever you’re used to. The “loin” cuts like filet mignon, T-bone, and porterhouse are also quite good. However, sirloins (no matter what a store tells you) are a step below those, and absolutely do not settle for round steak, chuck steak, or nameless cuts of meat like “grilling steak” or “broiling steak” — these are basically hamburger in solid form, and certainly mean you didn’t follow my directions about finding a good shop.

Assuming you’ve trusted me so far and you’re after a ribeye, and you want The Perfect Steak, just getting the right cut alone isn’t everything. Grade matters, as does which specific variety of cut, and AAA (or Prime, in the US) is the best you can get. If the shop tells you they don’t carry AAA / Prime, it’s another sign you may not have succeeded in following my instructions about finding a good shop. You can settle for AA / Choice if that’s truly all you can find (the meat is still good, just less well-marbled — see below), but that’s a last resort.

Finally, to really take this steak purchase to the top (especially if you only need 1 or 2 steaks total) ask for the end cuts — the ends are the tenderest bits of the ribeye, which is already more or less the tenderest cut of beef overall. If the end cuts are already gone (ha, someone beat you to them), just go for the steaks with the heaviest marbling (in other words, lots of fat, but what you’re looking for isn’t the thick fat at the edges, but all the tiny lines of fat spread throughout the meat). Also, good steaks are usually aged for extra taste, and the best aged steaks will have a really dark maroon tint to them, possibly even a little bluish, like a red wine. Most people are turned off by the dark hue and ask for the really fire-engine red cuts of meat because they look “fresher,” but now you know better. Also if it’s a good butcher, they should be able to give you some guidance on which are the best ones.

So, in summary what you’re after is:
* Beef ribeye (or rib steak, if that’s the best you can find)
* Grade AAA (in Canada) or Prime (in the US)
* Cut about one inch thick – thinner steaks are too easy to accidentally overcook
* End cut, or at least the most heavily marbled, best aged cuts they have

Remember, if you’re paying a premium for highest quality steaks (and these will run you $10-$15 apiece, just to warn you), it’s a waste not to take the opportunity to get exactly the ones you want.

II. Preparation

What you’ll need:
* Your steaks
* A good heavy cast iron skillet, or if that doesn’t work, a heavy stainless steel pan with a steel handle (you’re going to be heating it in an oven, so no plastic handles or anything else which will melt).
* A good quality flaky sea salt (I like Maldon salt)
* A peppermill with whole black or assorted peppercorns in it
* Oregano (my choice is Mexican oregano because it tastes less pasta-like, but use what you can find). Other herb mixes are okay, too, but I keep coming back to simple oregano.
* Butter, lots of it
* Optional: garlic, or that garlic juice that comes in the spray bottle

You’ve got your carefully selected steaks home, and now you’re staring at them. What do you want to do?

First, dry them off. Paper towels work best. Get those things as dry as you can. It seems weird, I know, but every drop of moisture remaining on the steaks anywhere is going to boil that part of the steak as it cooks, and boiled meat is tough and tasteless, and that’s not what you’re after.

After the steaks are good and dry, you need to season them. On each side, give them a generous dose of sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and oregano. You can use a lot of salt, especially if your butter is unsalted. Honestly, I’ve only overdone the salt once and even then the steaks were still very good. Once it’s all sprinkled, I like to rub and poke it into the meat with my fingers, to embed the spices into the steaks so they won’t fall off when cooking.

III. Cooking

Preheat your oven to 425F, with your skillet inside the oven on the middle rack. The skillet needs to be HOT when you drop those steaks onto it.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the butter and get it plenty hot (you don’t want it cooling down the skillet later). You’ll want at least 1/4cup of it — more if you like. It’s even better if you can heat the butter long enough to boil most of the water out of it (remember what I said before about boiled meat?).

When the oven is at temperature, and possibly a little longer to make sure the skillet is all the way heated as well, turn on the oven’s top broiler if it has one. Then, pour enough of the butter into the skillet to coat the bottom. It’ll sizzle like crazy, and that’s okay. Quickly drop the steaks into the butter and close the door.

For a doneness just between rare and medium rare, it consistently takes about three minutes a side. For medium, it’s about four. If you want it more done than that, wrap up those really terrific steaks, take them back to the butcher, and tell them you just found out you don’t deserve steaks that good, and to give you some cheap round steaks instead. I’m serious. If you’re going to overcook your steaks, don’t waste your money: everything at medium-well or higher tastes the same as cheap meat, so it might as well be cheap meat. And even if you usually like your steaks a bit more done, just this once try them medium at four minutes a side, and I bet you’ll change your mind forever (if you still don’t like the steaks that way, I guess you can toss them back in for another minute or two to top them off).

IV. Post Cooking

Your steaks are going to come out of the broiler seeming really floppy and a bit underdone. That’s because they’re going to keep cooking for another minute or two on the plate as they cool down. With a pair of tongs lift the steaks onto plates and let them “rest” for a minute or two.

Lastly, immediately before serving, rub a halved garlic clove on the surface of each steak, or, if you’re slightly lazy like I am, give each steak a quick spritz of garlic juice. It’s a small touch, but it makes the aroma so much richer.

Serve. I always like pairing a good steak with mashed potatoes and some fresh steamed veggies.

Feel free to add a little extra salt or cracked pepper to the steaks to taste.

And it probably goes without saying that you didn’t go to this much cost and trouble just to cover the thing in barbecue sauce or steak sauce — those things were invented to hide the fact that you bought the cheapest steaks possible, which, this time, you did not.

Also, if you need anything other than a butter knife to cut your finished steaks, you either didn’t follow my instructions about the meat quality, the skillet, or the butter. I haven’t used a steak knife at home in years.

This is the kind of steak you would be paying $35 – $50 a plate for in a restaurant, and I’ve just taught you how easy it is to do it at home for less than a third of that.

And now that you’ve got the secret, practice it a few times, and then go impress somebody. That’s right — got a new boyfriend / girlfriend? Looking for a promotion from the boss? Give your husband or wife a special treat? There you go. And if they’re vegetarian, maybe one day I’ll post my secret recipes for non-carnivore treats, so I guess you’re out of luck for now.

Small Freedoms

As anyone who read my older blog may remember, I spent the summer of 2004 in China.

It was a transformative experience.

China taught me about racial experiences I could never see in North America because of my own white privilege — what it’s like to be a visible minority, where you’re the only one that looks like you in a room, where people are constantly calling out your outsider-ness, where you’re the one who speaks with an accent that gets laughed about even when you’re trying to be serious.

China taught me a lot about differences of approach — how we take for granted the way we do things, but those are really only one of many ways to do it: squat toilets, on-demand water heaters, moshpits instead of orderly lines at ticket counters, and so on.

But the lesson China taught me that I was thinking about again this week is about freedom. For one thing, North Americans take advantage of their freedom of speech in a way they don’t even know. Around here, people complain that anyone reprimanding them for saying something offensive is censoring them, curtailing their freedom of speech. That disagreement is oppression. In China, I met person after person whose parent or loved one was on a two-year “work assignment” in Inner Mongolia, XinJiang, or one of the other really remote provinces. And I talked to a few whose loved one had disappeared entirely. Usually because they had written something, or said something too publicly, or joined the wrong club. Or sometimes no one was even sure why. And this was in liberal, modernized China, where the worst was usually just a two-year work reassignment. The one thing they could all agree on was that it used to be far worse, and they wouldn’t even talk about that for fear someone might be listening. We have no idea what true persecution really feels like.

Meanwhile, they laughed at American freedoms. “You guys can do so many things, and yet you waste it on stupid stuff while pursuing false freedoms.” I asked my Chinese language classmate what she meant. “Um, okay. Here’s an example. Subway sandwich shops. They dazzle you with this huge array of meaningless choices, distracting you from the fact that none of the choices are actually good. Do you really need to choose between five kinds of bread? Wouldn’t you rather have one or two good breads than five bad ones? Does your choice of shredded vs. whole lettuce actually make the sandwich any better? Americans always mistake small freedoms for big ones, and mere freedom on its own for goodness.”

That last line has resonated with me for over a decade.

Predictions: Update

I was asked for a specific prediction on the 2016 US election, to provide a clear benchmark to measure against. Fair enough. Here’s my stake in the ground:

Democrat: 333 electoral votes
Republican: 205 electoral votes

This was arrived at with a sophisticated system of intuition-seeded random-ass guess, so I’m not interested in debating details. Honestly, I just want this whole thing to be over so we can get on with our lives.

“And how does this election affect you, an expat American in Canada?” A lot more than you think. There’s an awful lot of discussion about closing borders, repealing NAFTA, changing overseas voting rights. It matters, guys.

***

Also, the climate thing. Let’s say 3 years as a benchmark for when we stop debating whether climate change exist and finally join forces trying to fix it.

By the way, the planet is also round.

Predictions

I thought it might be interesting to record some things from time to time, to look back and see how things go. I wish I’d done this early in the blog, especially looking back 15 years. 

My assumptions about the next couple of years:

  • The headphone-less and feature-light state of the new iPhone 7 will give it one of the softest launches of any iPhone device. Future versions will revert back to that universally useful jack. 
  • After the successes in Washington and Colorado, along with Trudeau’s intentions for Canada, marijuana decriminalization will be widespread in North America within 5 years or so. 
  • Hillary Clinton will win the US election by a fairly broad margin. The defeat will create unrest within the Republican Party, causing a mild reboot, possibly after a split. 
  • Another round of formidable storms, along with demographic shifts, will finally close the door on climate denial being treated as a legitimate viewpoint. 
  • Renewable power sources will become not only cleaner and safer, but also cheaper than petroleum or coal-based power by 2020. 

I may add a few more as I think of them. Let’s see how we do.