Chili Tonight: My Influences and Options

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From the moment I began teasing my Facebook friends with photos about the pot of chili I was making, inquiries and recipe requests began flowing in. And while I do boast about having certain secret ingredients in my various dishes, truth be told, I’m not all that secretive. There was only one problem: I seldom do recipes and my signature chili is definitely no exception. But I did promise a few people that I would write this article — to give them my non-recipe if you will — and I am a man of my word. So here goes.

For openers, let’s talk about the main ingredient in most chili recipes: the meat. Most chilis I have eaten, some of them extremely good, were made with finely ground meat. There’s nothing wrong with that. Heck, my own mother used hamburger meat (usually ground round) to make her chili. I used to do likewise until I discovered alternative methods. Some years ago, I was in downtown Indianapolis for a conference. A handful of associates and I decided to visit a chili bar for supper one night. We were doing sampler trays and at some point, I realized that the chili I was eating had not been made from hamburger but from finely chopped solid meat. This epiphany forever changed the way I make my chili.

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My go-to meats are steak and lean pork, which I usually dice by hand. This takes time but the results are great. Now stop a moment and think about the sheer number of alternatives that can be found in that one sentence alone. Do I have to use beef and pork? Heck no. You can use any number of meats, alone or in combination. I have done many chilis using only beef. I have eaten very good chilis made using only chicken, only pork, and in one case, no meat at all. My friend Ann and I once made a phenomenal chili using lean pork and chicken thighs. I have friends who make venison chili and one who has even used squirrel meat. I’ve not tasted either, nor do I judge, but these variations further serve to illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of possibilities.

You don’t necessarily have to cut the meat by hand, either, although that method will give you the greatest amount of control over the size and shape of your cut pieces. Do you have a food processor? I have had good results using my ancient La Machine food processor to do my coarse chopping. You just have to be careful not to end up with puréed meat. A meat grinder with a coarse grind option will also work nicely. That’s what Ann and I used when we made our pork and chicken chili.

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At this point, I am ready to season and brown my meat. While preheating my pan, I will season my meat while it is still in a bowl or spread out on my cutting board. Here is where I apply kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper, cayenne pepper (coarse or fine, your choice), and a favorite meat seasoning or rub — which in my case is Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning. No, I am not the Mike who developed this line of seasoning products, but I did meet him once.

If I have concerns about grease, I may opt to brown my meat in a skillet and then transfer it, sans all the extra grease, to my chili pot. I typically use lean cuts of meat, though, in which case I’ll prepare the whole gig in one pot. I start with a hot pan, add a little peanut oil (prized for its high smoking point), and brown the meat over high heat so as to burn off all the water that will come from the meat as it cooks.

As the last of that water cooks off, I’ll add some finely chopped peppers and a generous portion of minced garlic. My wife cannot tolerate heat, so I use red bell pepper plus a few serrano peppers — in proportions that add more flavor than heat. When the weather allows, I may opt to roast the peppers outside, even adding a little wood smoke for added flavor.

Just as the meat begins to fry, i.e. as the edges begin to turn dark brown, I’ll lower the heat and add liquid. Here also is where you’ll add the rest of your chili seasonings, namely chili powder, cumin, and oregano — Mexican oregano if you have it. The proper ratio of chili powder to cumin is three-to-one. The oregano is added to taste. If I add three tablespoons of chili powder and one of cumin, I might toss in a teaspoon, less than two, of the oregano. You can always adjust later on. Stir it up to coat all the meat evenly as you begin to lower the heat.

Here come some more variables, each of them worthy. Sometimes I’ll simmer the meat in beer. During a recent trip to Mexico, I discovered a wonderful brew. Bohemia Oscura is a Vienna style beer with excellent flavor that would work very well for this purpose. Not a fan of beer? During a trip to Colorado, I met a lady at a winery who talked about simmering her chili meat in that winery’s medium-dry sherry. And so now, as often as not, I’ll simmer my beef and pork in a generous pour of amontillado.

The rest of my liquid generally comes in the form of stock — beef stock if I’m using beef, chicken stock if I’m using poultry, and vegetable stock if I were to ever make a vegetarian chili. Not all chilis incorporate tomato; that’s a very regional thing. Being from southern Italy, my mother put tomatoes in everything. Even the broth in her chicken soup was red. Being my mother’s son, I follow suit and use diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, or both in my chili. It’s not the dominant ingredient but its presence cannot be ignored. All the while, my chili continues to simmer.

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Next, I add my beans and any other extras that are involved. Beans themselves are controversial, as some purists insist that they have no place in chili. Here again I defer to my chili influences, one being my mother and the other being a small chain of chili parlors in Milwaukee, where I went to college. My mom cooked the beans in her chili. The chili parlor, called Real Chili, served their chili over beans as an option. They also offered their chili over spaghetti and beans as another option, which I loved, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What kind of beans? What do you got? Pinto beans are common, as are kidney beans, both light and dark. I’ve used them all. How about a combination? Each contributes its own color, texture, and flavor to the dish. That chicken and pork chili that Ann and I made included a medley of organic beans and it proved to be wonderful. I often add corn to my steak and pork chili. For the pork and chicken chili I’ve mentioned, we added hominy. You don’t need to add anything unless you want to.

Whatever bean(s) and extras you use, let the chili simmer for a while. How long depends on who you ask, but this simmering time allows the flavors to meld and the broth to reduce and thicken. As this happens, you taste and adjust the seasonings as you see fit. Bear in mind, as the liquid reduces, the seasoning flavors will become more concentrated. Don’t rush to add more salt early on. Need more heat? Add cayenne pepper or hot sauce (I may toss in a pour of Valentina or Tabasco at this point, depending on my needs). At this point, it becomes largely a matter of personal preference.

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Once the chili reaches its desired state of doneness, as indicated by the thickness of the broth and satisfaction of the cook with its flavors, it’s time to put out the foundations, condiments, and sides. My mother never made chili mac, but influenced by the Real Chili parlors in Milwaukee, I have always served my chili on a bed of broken spaghetti. My condiments include shredded cheddar cheese, chopped fresh onion, oyster crackers, sour cream, and hot sauce. My favorite side is cornbread.

If you were expecting a more concise recipe, I hope you aren’t too disappointed. I have been making chili for a few decades now. Some have been better than others and in all candor, my results have become more consistent over time. I have reached a point now where even if I vary the base ingredients, i.e. the meat and bean choices, the end quality remains fairly consistent.

If you use any of the guidelines I’ve presented here, please let me know how your results turn out. And as always, thank you for hanging with me.

My Love Affair with Olive Oil

IMG_7331I found myself alone with my thoughts on a quiet Sunday morning, contemplating the contents of my oil decanter, which I had just refilled, and thinking about how many wonderful dishes I have either started or finished with a simple pour of some good olive oil. Truth be told, I love that little decanter, which was given to me by a very dear friend who enjoys cooking every bit as much as I do. Maybe more. After a while, I ended up replacing the pour spout on that decanter with a nicer one that doesn’t leak and made a point of getting her one, too. But enough about that; let’s talk about some of the wonderful things we can do with a little bit of good olive oil.

Right now you may be wondering, “What does he mean by good olive oil?” The answer to that question is highly subjective. I tend to use a lot of “extra virgin” olive oil (EVO), which is made from pure, cold-pressed olives. Some will say EVO is better suited to dipping and dressing than for cooking because of its relatively low smoking point. Me, I use it all the time. “Regular” olive oil may have some cold-pressed oils but also includes processed oils. It’s lighter in color and has less flavor but also has a higher smoke point, meaning that it doesn’t burn as readily. There are also “light” olive oils, which appear to have been developed for people who don’t like olive oil. They have very little color and almost no flavor. Now mind you, there are many different types of extra virgin olive oil with a price range to match. Some are infused with herbs, spices, etc. Some stink to high heaven. Cheap EVO is often exactly that but by the same token, more expensive does not necessarily mean better. Experiment. If you’re looking for a good place to start, my favorite mass-market EVO brand is Filippo Berio.

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First off, you can make some wonderful Mediterranean style salad dressings and bread dips using extra virgin olive oil. People sometimes spend a small fortune on infused dipping oils. The next time you have some warm, crusty bread handy, try this: Pour some good EVO onto a small plate — at least enough to coat the plate and maybe a little more than that. Then add grated cheese, i.e. Parmesan, Romano, or both, followed by a little freshly ground black pepper. The flavor is basic, yet extraordinary. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reloading the plate.

For a simple-yet-bold salad dressing, pour some EVO into a cruet along with a splash of red wine vinegar or balsamic (use slightly more balsamic as it is less acidic). Then add salt, a little black pepper, some finely shredded fresh basil, and a clove of garlic, either pressed or finely minced.

Caprese salad or appetizer skewers? Easy duty. Line up your tomato, fresh basil leaves, and fresh mozzarella. Then drizzle with EVO and a light sprinkle of salt. Purists stop there but you can also add some cracked pepper and/or a drizzle of balsamic reduction to change it up a little.

Finally, my fire-roasted pepper salad, which is nothing more than (go figure) fire-roasted bell peppers, shaved garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt. Put some of that on a sandwich and you’ll see God.

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My best sauces, whether for pizza or pasta, begins with a simple pour of EVO onto a preheated skillet or pot. What follows next depends upon what you’re making. For pizza, fry up a generous amount of garlic and then add fresh, whole peeled, or crushed tomatoes seasoned with oregano, salt, pepper and just the slightest amount of basil. For pasta sauce, use a little less garlic and add onion (for sweetness) before pouring in either fresh tomatoes or tomato purée. Then season with basil, oregano, salt, and pepper, any secret/special ingredients you might have, plus your meats unless you are making a marinara.

By the way, if you’re making a bread dough pizza crust, apply a little olive oil to the top and bottom as you spread your dough. Then pre-cook the crust until it begins to rise and dry out a bit. Add your toppings and continue baking. The crust will be more chewy, with crisp edges, and less mushy in the center.

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Next up, how about some roasted veggies? Roasting brings out an entirely different flavor and texture profile than you would otherwise get. I hated the notion of eating Brussels sprouts until my friend Ann convinced me to try them roasted. But don’t stop there. Many vegetables can be brought to life via pan roasting. Just toss them in some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, turn them out on to a sheet pan, and roast them on high heat, turning at least once until the edges begin to char.

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Of course, you can also sautée your veggies but as sautéeing involves relatively high heat, you must constantly keep your veggies moving so that the olive oil does not burn. You can also use EVO, salt, pepper, and Italian herbs to marinate and grill many vegetables, including zucchini, asparagus, bell peppers, and corn. For me, the perfectly grilled veggie has some char on it but is neither burned nor dried out. The key here, as with sautéeing, is vigilance. You can’t turn your back on this stuff.

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EVO can also be a component in meat marinades, especially pork tenderloin. My go-to Mediterranean pork tenderloin marinade involves a generous pour of EVO, two to three cloves of garlic, pressed or finely minced, a good portion of salt, about half as much cracked pepper, a dash of dried oregano, and some fresh lemon juice. Marinate for at least two hours before grilling. I prefer to sear the meat by grilling on direct heat and then finish indirect, usually adding some wood smoke while the meat finishes.

As an aside… about a year ago, I was on the Baja peninsula of Mexico, an area well-suited to vineyards and olive groves. It was during this business trip that I saw olive trees for the first time. I still smile every time I think about it. For what it’s worth, the wines of Baja California are also quite good but haven’t really caught on in the US yet. I believe that’s coming, though.

olive-oil-601487_640As you can see, olive oil is a versatile component of many Mediterranean style dishes. To be sure, I use other oils for other purposes (do not try stir-frying with EVO) but for the various dishes I have described here, only a good olive oil will do.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

While I Was Away

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Good heavens, beloved readers, an entire riding season has passed since I last posted here! It was never my intention to be so quiet for so long. Time just got the better of me. I won’t let that happen a second time. Here is a recap of things that have transpired since I last wrote to you.

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The new job I started last fall with Diaz Group LLC has continued to expand and evolve. The people there, at all levels of the organization, are top shelf and having spent so many years in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I’m definitely in my element. Although my title has not yet changed, my role with the company has become increasingly strategic in scope. This has become a unique opportunity that almost makes me want to thank my last employer, whose name does not even deserve mention on my pages anymore, for having decided to part ways with me. Of course anything can happen, sometimes without warning, but for now I am exactly where I want to be.

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With my shoulder replacement completely healed, I was able to resume riding again. Getting the rust off my riding skills took me longer than I expected, in part because the layoff had been so long, but also because something that has changed between my ears. Even though my severe shoulder injury occurred while walking, not riding, just getting hurt so badly has made me aware of my vulnerability. That’s something on which I must continue to work because the wrong kind of fear can be dangerous when riding.

As I do every year, I kicked off the riding season at the beginning of May by attending Motorcycle Sunday in Aurora. This year’s event was made extra special when my son came in from the Quad Cities to attend with me, meeting up with another dear friend to hang out together, and then my daughter and her boyfriend, non-riders, came over to hang with the three of us for a while.

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From spring through fall, I did much grilling, both at home with family and with my dear friend Ann up in Wisconsin, who like my son shares my love for cooking and is a very skilled cook in her own right. I used my little smoker a few times as well. Some dishes were better than others but all were quite flavorful and there were no total failures.

The smoker is new for me and a welcome addition to my culinary arsenal. Smoking foods, however, is far from a foolproof endeavor. In short order, I have already learned a couple of fundamental lessons. First, that just like any other type of flavoring, woodsmoke can be overdone. The smoke flavor should complement all the other flavors in play. Overdo it and you may end up with an unwelcome bitterness that overpowers all the other flavors. The second lesson I learned in a hurry is that you can’t hurry. When you’re slow cooking with a smoker, time is your friend, your ally. For best results, don’t shortchange that friend.

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Last June, for the first time in years, my son joined me for the annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which benefits the Middle East Conflicts War Memorial. I was grateful to have my son along. I only wish the weather had been more favorable. Despite the Freedom Run being a rain-or-shine proposition, and with significant rain in the forecast, attendance for the 2019 event was a fraction of what I’ve witnessed in past years. Indeed, we were hampered by an extended torrential downpour at the starting point. Still, I would like to have seen a better turnout. This cause deserves a better turnout. That’s why I was there, as was my son. In fact, I have been trying to get Ann to come down for this event since we began riding together — about four years now — but she has always had a conflicting commitment during that weekend in June. As it turns out, this was one time I was glad she couldn’t come. Not because I didn’t want her along for the ride — I always want her along — but she would have been miserable in that rain and the turnout would not have impressed her at all. Maybe next year.

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July brought about two fantastic road trips. The first was a very long day trip with my wife Karen. The only thing that kept it from being an overnighter was that we couldn’t get anyone to take care of the pets. Ah, but it was a fantastic little road trip! We went to the Quad Cities to see Holiday Inn performed at a dinner theater called Circa 21, where our son John had been working as the theater’s Technical Director. As such, John was able to get us good seats, ate dinner with us and sat with us for the show, introduced us to the theater’s Operations Manager as well as some of the cast and crew, and then after the performance, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater. Karen and I returned home sometime during the overnight hours, tired but happy and more than a little bit proud, too.

As a venue, Circa 21 is a great theater. Actors come in from across town as well as across the United States to perform there. Dinner, served buffet style, is exceptionally well-prepared. We enjoyed a bottle of wine with our dinner and the bar also sells a variety of cocktails, including ice cream drinks. The show itself was excellent and was preceded by performances by the waitstaff. For the money, one would be hard-pressed to find any better theatrical entertainment value.

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After missing the Midwest Motorcycle Rally last July due to my broken shoulder and subsequent replacement surgery (see My Summer Interrupted, Part II if you haven’t read the shoulder saga), I picked up Ann on a sunny Wednesday morning and we headed to Winona, Minnesota for a few days. What an awesome time we had exploring the area, on our own as well as with other rallygoers on the guided tours for which the MMR has become famous.

This year’s trip was particularly enjoyable for several reasons, not the least of which was that this was my longest trip of any consequence since I’d had my surgery a year earlier. The recovery period for shoulder replacements is measured in months, not days or even weeks. Most people don’t know this but during the first two months of my recovery, during which my physical activity had been severely restricted, Ann would “take me with her” on her daily walks by sending me photographs from the nature trails, river walks, lake shore, marina, farmers market, and more. She did her darnedest to keep my spirits up during what were some pretty dark days for me.

Besides getting to visit the rally’s new venue in Winona, Ann and I had also gone Dutch on a pair of matching Bell helmets with Bluetooth® communication headsets. This allowed us to talk to each other in a near-normal tone of voice wherever we went on the bike. Fantastic! Our Bell helmets also cut down on the wind noise in our ears, reducing fatigue as well as possibly some hearing damage, which for a half-deaf gent like me is important.

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Labor Day weekend brought about one more road trip, which may seem like something but was still well below average for me. I picked up Ann on Friday morning and we headed for Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a stop in Rockford to see the Anderson Japanese Gardens. I had been there once before, years ago, and it made such a lasting impression on me that I felt compelled to share the experience with Ann. She loved it! From there we took Highway 2, a very pleasant motorcycle road, down to Dixon and then endured some endless road construction until we hit Interstate 80. Following a burger stop at Cerno’s Bar and Grill, a historic bar imported from Belgium and built by Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898, we continued on to Cedar Rapids, arriving at our hotel that evening. My son John departed from work later in the day and joined us at our hotel that same night.

Our Saturday was a full one. A delightful friend of John’s named Marjorie, who hails from elsewhere in Iowa, met us in the hotel parking lot for a day of two-up motorcycle touring. We began with a hearty family-style breakfast at the Ox Yoke Inn in historic Amana. After everyone had eaten their fill, we strolled through the town, visiting the shops, tasting wines, etc. before gearing up and riding northwest to Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum and J&P Cycles retail store. We then went into nearby Stone City for supper at the General Store Pub. In hindsight, I guess we went pretty high on history that day.

On Sunday morning John, Ann, and I saddled up and rode into Illinois, stopping for a few hours in historic Galena, where we met up with another old friend of ours for a few hours before heading home. At that point, John and our friend Vern headed toward Chicago while Ann and I meandered back to her home in Wisconsin before I turned south and headed back home myself. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.

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A week later, Karen and I were making our annual excursion to the Sandwich Fair, which is hands down the best county fair for miles around. We tried to get the now-grown kids to join us, as they used to do when they had no choice in the matter, but getting four or more adults to rendezvous at the same place at the same time can be challenging. Still, Karen and I had our usual fun time. Can’t wait ’til next year.

In September, my son John and I met up after work and went to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for a night of fantastic reggae/ska/club music. The opening act was Steel Pulse, a UK-based band that was the first non-Jamaican group to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. They were astounding, to say the least. I walked in not knowing who they were and walked out a fan.

The next performer was Shaggy, a Jamaican-born musician of whom both my son and I are great fans. Exactly how this artist has bridged the generation gap between John and I is not exactly clear, but we were beeboppin’ into the night.

The headliner was UB40, a group whom I have adored since the 1980’s. As Ann has also appreciated a number of their songs, I had hoped to entice her down to Chicago for this event, but as the show occurred on a Wednesday night and a late one at that, it was not to be. Hey, I never expected to see UB40 in person myself and my son John never thought he’d ever see Shaggy live and in person. I submit that the possibilities are indeed possible, so who is to say that Ann and I won’t see UB40 in concert sometime in the future?

For the sake of time and space, I have omitted several other highlights, but suffice it to say it’s been an awesome year so far. Soon the snow will be falling, but I may still get another ride or two in. Time will tell.

I know, it’s been a long post. If you’ve continued reading this far, as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Mediterranean Flavors

I had hinted about doing this back when I wrote about our last cooking endeavor (see Cajun-Midwestern Fusion). With spring being a little late to arrive, Ann and I figured we had one more cooking opportunity before riding season really gets underway. So we sorted through countless recipes, favoring Mediterranean influences this time, and selected three dishes to make for our supper (click on each to see the original recipes and ingredients):
Bacon, Avocado, & Brussels Sprout Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette
Chicken Spinach Feta Pie
Roman-Style Stuffed Artichokes

But before we got into that, Ann served up a light lunch that reminded me of the Cajun cooking day we had enjoyed last month. Apparently one of Ann’s local supermarkets had brought in a sizable shipment of frozen, pre-seasoned crawfish. I’d eaten breaded and fried crawfish tails a few times, but neither Ann nor I had never done the break-em-open-and-eat-the innards thing before. She steamed them up and served them with melted butter in addition to a batch of the same spicy remoulade recipe we had made last time. I’m glad Ann and I shared this new and interesting experience together but in all candor, I prefer nibbling the deep-fried tails.

Raw, shredded Brussels sprouts and baby spinach formed the foundation for this particular salad, which we selected because it didn’t share too many ingredients with our other dishes, but also because Ann and I seem to have developed a thing for Brussels sprouts over the past year. We were not disappointed. The combined ingredients deliver big on flavor and textures. In the future, we might depart from the recipe slightly. The avocado seemed to get run over by everything else and so could be considered expendable. And although the lemon vinaigrette was quite good, a poppyseed dressing may complement the flavors even better. To be determined.

What do you get when you combine ricotta, feta, and Parmesan cheeses with spinach, chicken and more, all baked in a phyllo crust? I regret that I didn’t start shooting photos until our chicken spinach feta pie had already been assembled and baked. The preparation is somewhat involved, yet kind of fun. On this one, however, we deviated from the recipe before I had even arrived. Rather than season and pan fry the chicken breasts, I marinated them a day in advance and then grilled them to perfection the night before I drove up to Ann’s place. By doing this, we turned up the volume on that chicken considerably, I think for the better.

Have you ever worked with phyllo dough? We hadn’t, not before this, and we learned something about it in the process. Once you take the sheets out of their packaging, you’ve got minutes to bathe them in butter or otherwise do something before they become as frail and brittle as dry leaves. But when handled properly, there is no substitute for the light, layered, buttery, flaky magic that results.

Given all the stuff that went inside that pie, we really weren’t sure what was going to happen when Ann released the spring-form pan after baking. Would it self-destruct, sticking to the pan and oozing cheese-infused spinach all over the place? Nope. After allowing the contents to cool and set, the entire pie came out intact and retained its shape, even when sliced. The flavor profile was awesome! Just one amendment going forward, the recipe calls for concentric circles of chopped tomatoes, onions, and olives just beneath the top crust. After eating our respective slices, Ann and I agreed that we would combine those three ingredients into a medley, such that the resulting layer delivered a consistent flavor explosion across the entire pie.

I am a fan of stuffed artichoke hearts. My middle sister Anna has made them for years and I have always enjoyed them. Interestingly enough, Ann and I replicated her recipe almost exactly one year prior to our most recent endeavor, with good results. This time around, we wanted to try using fresh, whole artichokes, a daring endeavor to be sure. The results? Whole artichokes make for a more formidable presentation over canned hearts—think large, stand-alone pieces versus a casserole—but what you gain in appearance, you more than lose in labor and waste. Truth be told, my sister’s casserole has better flavor and texture. But again, we wouldn’t know this had we not tried and as always, we had fun throughout the process. There is no substitute for a kitchen filled with love and laughter.

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A few final thoughts. First, given the characteristics of this meal, I wanted to select a light-bodied, dry wine to balance it off. We went with an inexpensive Pinot Grigio (Fossetta) from Venice, Italy. Crisp and fruity, yet dry, this wine seemed to serve our needs.

Second, I have presented these three dishes in the order in which Ann and I both enjoyed them most. That salad was our hands-down favorite. It was light and brimming with flavor and texture. Sure, we would change things up a little if and when we make it again, but as built, this first-course dish was just fine. The pie was our second favorite. Plenty of flavors there, even if we hadn’t used grilled chicken (but I’m glad we did). It’s a rich dish, though, and that one pie could have fed up to eight people. Luckily, the leftovers are at least as good as the first time around. The artichokes tasted fine, but in the end, we deemed them to be too labor-intensive for what we got out of them, especially when compared to the tried-and-true casserole version that we’d made before.

Finally, speaking of labor-intensive dishes, all three of these involved a fair amount of cutting, chopping, mincing, grating, etc. That’s not necessarily bad, especially if you enjoy being in the kitchen. But if you are looking for quick and easy meals, these are not the dishes you seek.

It may be a while before you see another “Ann and Michael cooking” post, as once the weather warms up, we tend to go riding when we get together—and I do so enjoy sharing those excursions here. On the other hand, Mother Nature has been a little unpredictable lately, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Until then, as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Cajun-Midwestern Fusion

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When it comes to our cooking endeavors, Ann and I frequently look for new things to try, within the context of our culinary preferences. We both enjoy bold, flavorful dishes. We both enjoy healthy food options—eh, more or less. And we both enjoy preparing new things together, with an eye for how we might improve upon the same endeavor in the future. This time around we chose to combine Cajun and Midwestern influences. The resulting fusion of flavors, colors, and textures was quite satisfying.

For daytime grazing, in addition to some Cajun seasoned mixed nuts and seasoned pretzels that Ann had made in advance, we prepared a platter of assorted sausage skewers. Ann had picked up some cheddar jack and bacon bratwurst and a chicken apple sausage. I brought along a smoked andouille sausage rope. After roasting the sausages a bit, we sliced them and browned the slices in a cast iron skillet. Emulating an appetizer that her mom used to make, Ann skewered individual pieces of her two non-spicy sausage varieties with a pineapple chunk and a maraschino cherry. The sweet and savory combination makes for an excellent hors d’oeuvre. I went in a different direction, skewering any of the three sausages with a chunk of peppery cheese, a grape tomato half, and a green olive half. I had purchased a goat cheese pepper jack and a Wisconsin-made chipotle cheddar expressly for this purpose. Both cheeses were flavorful but also quite different from each other in terms of taste and texture. The skewered sausage, cheese, and veggies produced an explosion of flavors.

Ann and I had selected three dishes to prepare for our supper: blackened shrimp, zucchini fritter waffles, and oven roasted okra. I believe we used black, white, and cayenne pepper along with paprika, crushed garlic, onion powder, basil, thyme and salt to create our own blackening spice blend. These spices along with melted butter are what give the characteristic blackening effect popularized by the late Chef Paul Prudhomme. When it comes to cooking shrimp, timing is everything. Undercooked shrimp is just gross, but if you let them go too long, you get something along the lines of cooked rubber. Whether by skill or luck, ours came off perfectly.

We had made zucchini fritters once before, discovering at that time that we got better results using Ann’s waffle iron than by frying them in a skillet. The waffle iron technique creates a greater surface area and thinner insides, which we both feel gives a better flavor and texture. Less greasy, too.

I had suggested a spicy remoulade as the ideal condiment for both the shrimp and the waffled fritters. That turned out to be a good choice and the remoulade we made was da’ bomb. There are too many ingredients to list here, but I’ll share this recipe that we used, more or less, from the Serious Eats website. Creamy, tangy, spicy… there are so many words I could use to describe the stuff. Quite good!

I can hear you now. Okra? Why okra? Well, mainly because when we were planning this meal, Ann mentioned that she had a taste for okra. Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. This preparation was super simple, just a bag of frozen, cut okra tossed with some salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and enough olive oil to make it all stick. Then roast at 450° F until done. We liked this simple side, but would probably add more spices the next time around.

Good rosé wines are said to pair well with spicy dishes as well as seafood. I tried several in the weeks leading up to our cooking date—call it a hobby of mine—and selected a 2016 Domaine Chantepierre Tavel from France. The term Tavel, I discovered, refers to a region in the southern Rhone Valley that specializes in dry rosé wines with a minimum alcohol content of 11%. This particular Tavel is 14% abv, enough to make one a bit more talkative after a couple of glasses. My late father, who made his own Zinfandel for many years, used to profess that drinking a good wine “loosens the tongue.” For the money, this one would be hard to beat. Very fruit-forward but still dry, especially on the finish.

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Compared to some of the meals Ann and I have prepared together, this one was pretty simple, but no less delicious. When you have a desire for good food and enjoy cooking, things have a way of falling into place.

“What are we going to make next time?”

“I dunno. Got any ideas?”

Truth be told, we had already begun pitching ideas back and forth for next time days earlier and have continued to do so since then. The possibilities seem to be leaning decidedly toward Mediterranean fare. Time will tell.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Little Cravings—Sopes!

It’s pretty simple, really. You make a stiff corn dough using masa harina, water, and salt. Then you divide that dough into equal portions, each about the size of a golf ball. Now keeping the dough moist by covering it with a wet paper towel, you take each of the golf balls and form it into a flat circle with raised and pinched edges, sort of like a cornmeal petri dish. Then you fry those babies in hot oil until the edges become crispy, but the insides are still soft. The resulting flat corn cakes are called sopes, a type of Mexican street food known as antojitos, which translates literally into “little cravings.” Well let me tell you about the little cravings Ann and I made last weekend, because they were really, really good.

You can put all manner of meats and/or vegetables, plus condiments, on sopes. The raised edges act like a little, non-offensive Mexican border wall that helps keep all the ingredients on top of the little cornmeal disc. Ann and I chose to make green chile pulled pork carnitas, using a pressure cooker. We used a beautiful three-pound pork butt, which we cut into eight pieces and browned, and then cooked under pressure, along with a bunch of tomatillos, green chiles, onions, garlic, herbs and spices.

Mind you, I had never used a pressure cooker before and everything I knew about them I learned from watching television sitcoms, so my biggest fear was not that the meal would turn out poorly, but that we would cause a messy explosion. Ann assured me that my fears were unfounded and all would turn out just fine, as long as we observed a few simple precautions. Of course she was right and everything went as planned, rather than as feared.

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What went into the pressure cooker filled the pressure cooker. What was left after the lid came off took up a lot less space. The eight portions of pork butt had become so tender, they were already falling apart before I attacked them with two forks. Having given up a lot of liquid under all the heat and pressure, our vegetables were but a collection of mushy solids. And there was indeed a lot of residual liquid in the cooking chamber. This transformation took place in just under an hour, not including cool-down and release. We probably spent more time prepping the ingredients than cooking them. And it was worth every minute. Once that lid came off, the aroma was delightful.

What Ann did next is really cool and ultimately produced the best part of our meal. After removing the chunks of pork for me to pull apart, she strained all the remaining solids from the greasy liquid, stirring and pressing as she filled the strainer. Next, she separated and removed the fat, pouring flavorful greenish liquid into a clean pot. Are you ready for the magic? Ann poured the strained solids into a blender, liquified them, and added the resulting slurry into our broth. Then she cooked the entire lot down into a mild-yet-flavorful salsa verde. This took some time, but again proved to be well worth the wait. A small bit of key lime juice added to the serving bowl was the final touch that made this salsa the best condiment we had.  And we had plenty: homemade guacamole and pico de gallo (“rooster’s beak,” a fresh tomato salsa), several store variety salsas, shredded lettuce, shredded chihuahua cheese, crumbled queso fresco, and crema, a mild-flavored Mexican style sour cream.

Once the salsa had been reduced, Ann fried the sopes on top of the stove while our shredded carnitas, freshly bathed in our salsa verde, were being broiled to browned perfection in the oven below.

It’s not always easy to have the various components of a meal come off in a timely fashion, but this time it did. The table had already been set and every condiment served before Ann began frying the sopes. We didn’t make too many because sopes are best served hot and fresh. The steaming broiled green chile pork carnitas came out of the oven when the sopes were ready to be filled.

And man, did we fill them. Little cravings? Ha! We ate our fill, delighted to agree that we liked our homemade salsa fresca, salsa verde, and guacamole far more than any of the store-bought condiments we had procured. Ann’s son Andy agreed that our endeavor had been successful and once I got home with my share of the leftovers, even my wife Karen, who does not tolerate much spiciness, agreed that our pork carnitas and salsa verde were mild enough, yet so flavorful.

You know what? As culinary efforts go, this was not a labor-intensive meal. As always, there was much animated conversation and laughter in the kitchen, which somehow made our efforts seem more effortless.

I can’t wait to see what we cook up next time. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.

Fun with Fajitas Well North of the Border

ChipsConsidering the magnitude of our last culinary endeavor (see Worth the Effort: Homemade Ravioli and More), Ann and I vowed to try something less labor-intensive this time around. No, I never suggested going to McDonald’s or ordering a pizza. After lobbing Pinterest links at each other for a few days, we decided to attempt fajitas with a few simple sides.

When I say simple, I mean simple. In advance of my arrival, Ann brought in chips and salsa from a local Chili’s. They made for a nice opener and as thin, fresh tortilla chips go, we could have done worse.

Sheet PansWe opted for two meats, chicken and steak, but prepared each differently. For the steak, as well as the peppers and onions, we prepared a variation of this sheet pan steak fajitas recipe. Our greatest variation was using skirt steak, which is the traditional go-to cut for fajitas, instead of flank steak. For the chicken, we applied a fantastic fajitas marinade recipe, which I would like to prepare again, once the next grilling season comes around.

As always, the glaring issue was portion control. When Ann and I engage in these kitchen collaborations, we typically plan to feed three and have enough leftovers for five. Inevitably we end up with enough for twice as many. I blame myself. Okay, between the steak and chicken, I managed to keep the total meat load to around three pounds prior to cooking. But what could I possibly have been thinking when I procured seven bell peppers of various colors and ample size for this meal?

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Amidst all of our slicing and chopping and mixing and rubbing, Ann quietly prepared some cilantro-lime rice and a topping of seasoned frijoles negros (black beans). This made for a fantastic side dish, more of Cuban origin than Mexican according to Ann. She also mixed up a batch of homemade guacamole that may very well be the best I’ve ever sampled, plus a bowl of fresh pico de gallo. Had I been paying attention, I might be able to tell you when went into these delicious sides and condiments, but then I may very well have sliced a few fingers along with all the peppers and onions I’d been preparing.

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And so our preparations went on. By supper time we had produced a table filled with delicious food. After a brief discussion on how to properly fold tortillas for fajitas, so that there is only one open end and no contents falling out the bottom, we dug in. Qué delicioso!

I’d like to tell you that no limes were harmed during the production of this meal, but that would be a lie. The fact is that from the time we began work on our first marinade through the opening of our last bottle of Corona, many limes were zested, cut, twisted, squeezed and/or pressed for our personal pleasure.

And you know what? We enjoyed it all. As always, thanks for hanging with me.