Monday, January 30, 2012

A Pot of Chili for a Day That's Chilly

For a hearty and satisfying dish to heat things up, a piping hot bowl of chili crowned with a blanket of melted cheese and a dollop of sour cream, and flanked by a pile of crisp tortilla chips, fits the bill.  Chili is requisite winter fare; and if you’re planning a Superbowl party, chili is a must at your halftime buffet.

The Spanish nomenclature of chili con carne translates to chili peppers with meat.  All chilies traditionally contained chili peppers, beef, onions and spices.  Variations of chili have evolved to include beans and tomatoes, chicken instead of beef or no meat at all.  These varied ingredient listings have led to heated controversy, each camp emphatically denouncing the next.   Chili’s United States debut transpired in Texas.  The Texas-style ‘bowl of red’ contains no beans and only chunks of beef are utilized as ground beef is forbidden.  If your tendency is to avoid controversial subjects of conversation such as religion, politics or taxes, either steer clear of big belt buckle, ten-gallon hat and cowboy boot clad individuals or else add chili to that list of taboo topics.  If, however, you are one of those brave gluttons for punishment, there are chili cook-off competitions that take place annually throughout the United States, where each participant firmly stands their ground as they boast to making the best “real” chili of all.

I find that such stringent rules of cooking accomplish little more than to stifle creativity and these ingredient police a threat to the inventions of new and exciting variations.  Luckily for us epicureans, they are in the minority.  Vegetarians now indulge in the spicy stew by omitting the meat and adding more beans and vegetables.  Green chili, or chili verde, is a very spicy Mexican version incorporating several varieties of green chilies including jalapenos, poblanos, serranos and even habaneros when an extra kick is desired.  Chili verde typically contains pork rather than beef, and no tomatoes.  White chili is a nice change of pace, substituting white beans for the usual red kidney and/or pinto beans, and containing chicken instead of beef; once again, no tomatoes.

Chili is usually presented with toppings and accompaniments.  Toppings can include cheese such as cheddar or Monterey Jack, sour cream, sliced jalapenos or chopped scallions.  Accompaniments usually come in the form of chips for dipping, tortilla chips or corn chips being the most-desired dippers.

I have finally come up with the perfect quick combination for a stellar chili, using two kinds of beans, two cheeses and chipotle chili powder.  It is very quick and easy to prepare, and it can stand alone as a one-dish meal washed down with a good beer or margarita.

Chili (6-8 servings)
2 onions, chopped
2 lbs. ground beef
4 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup orange juice
½  cup tequila
1 cup beer
2 4-ounce cans diced green chilies
2 15-ounce cans chopped tomatoes, undrained
1 15-ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
2 cups shredded Monterey jack cheese
Sour cream, for serving
Tortilla chips or corn chips, for serving

Cook onion, garlic and ground beef in a stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until all of the meat is browned.  Add the orange juice, tequila, beer, chilies, tomatoes, beans, tomato paste, and the spices.  Stir to combine and then bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, combine the two cheeses in a serving bowl.
Ladle chili into soup bowls.  Top each serving with cheese.  At the table, serve with a dollop of sour cream if desired, and serve chips alongside for dipping.

Chili, like most stews, tastes better the next day.  This is a perfect meal to prepare ahead for a busy evening later in the week.  Next time it’s blustery outside, start simmering the pot of chili on the stove just before your family is due home.  From the first spoonful, the heat as well as the spicy kick will instantly warm up everyone at your dinner table, because nothing chases the chillies away like a bowl of chili!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

This Month's Flavor: Moroccan

As we continue to embrace the Mediterranean diet for all of its healthful and flavorful properties, Moroccan cuisine has seen a surge in popularity in recent years.  Spice blends now adorn the gourmet market shelves alongside jars of preserved lemons; tagine pots are now readily available for purchase in most upscale cookware shops and culinary magazines showcase recipes for this North African fare.

Scent is one of the first senses to detect a Moroccan dish being prepared, as the cuisine is loaded with spices which can include saffron, turmeric, cumin, ginger, cinnamon and paprika.  Ras el Hanout is a blend of spices, which is commonly used to season Moroccan dishes.  Herbs typically used in Moroccan cooking include cilantro and parsley.

Moroccan food makes use of nuts and such fruits as raisins, dates, apricots and preserved lemons.  Preserved lemons are simply lemons, usually Meyer lemons, which have been cut, heavily salted and then jarred with their own juice for four to six weeks.  Once rinsed and added to various dishes such as tagines, they impart a distinctive flavor that melds well with the spices.

The tagine has two definitions.  It is a thick pot, traditionally clay or earthenware, in the form of a base with a conical lid.  The ingredients simmer within the vessel, the condensation sliding down the interior of the lid to return to the pot, thus keeping the food moist.  It is traditionally used to make, well, a tagine, which is a Moroccan stew of meat or poultry, spices, preserved lemons and vegetables.  The stew is typically served with couscous, semolina pasta shaped like small granules.

Couscous is a staple throughout North Africa.  Ingredients added to the couscous vary from country to country, Moroccans favoring the use of saffron.  You can add any Mediterranean flare to season couscous, from chopped tomatoes to almonds and golden raisins to saffron and diced zucchini.  Couscous is a quick side dish that can be made as simply or as exotic as you crave.

Other Mediterranean touches to Moroccan cooking include olives, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil.

Originating in neighboring Tunisia, harissa is a hot sauce made from hot chili peppers, spices and olive oil and is used as a condiment at the Moroccan table.

If you don’t have a tagine pot, a heavy Dutch oven with a lid will work just as well.  If you become completely taken with Moroccan food and wish to add to your cookware collection, Le Creuset now makes a tagine.  Alternatively, some shops have beautifully designed tagines in exotic patterns.  For my fellow Long Island foodie shoppers, one such store is called Loaves and Fishes, located in Bridgehampton, New York.  There are many recipes for chicken tagine, but they are all very similar, all using cilantro, parsley, onions, garlic, and the usual suspect list of spices and preserved lemons.  Some tagines add artichoke hearts, some call for olives.  Some include tomatoes and carrots, others throw chick peas into the mix. Some recipes call for both stovetop and oven cooking, others require no firing up of the oven at all.  The nice touch that I have come up with in my recipe is the addition of almond-stuffed green olives, which you can find at the olive bar of a well-stocked supermarket.

Chicken Tagine with Lemons and Almond-Stuffed Olives

1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon paprika
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 whole preserved lemons, rinsed
8 chicken thighs (bone-in, skins on)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 bouquet of parsley and cilantro (stems with leaves) tied with kitchen string
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1 ½ cups chicken stock
½ pound almond-stuffed green olives
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 cup couscous
1 1/3 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt

Combine the ginger, cumin, paprika, salt, pepper, finely chopped onion, olive oil and garlic in a bowl or plastic sealable bag.  Add the chicken, mix to coat.  Marinate in the refrigerator over night.

Preheat oven to 400-degrees.  Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a tagine pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the contents from the marinade bowl or bag into the pot, scraping as much of the marinade spices into the pot as possible.  Stir for about two minutes, add the second chopped onion and stir for another minute.  Add the bouquet, saffron and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, cover, and place into the oven for 50 minutes.  Remove the pot from the oven, remove the chicken and arrange on a platter.  Add the lemons to the pot and boil the mixture over medium-high heat until reduced slightly.  Remove the bouquet, then stir in the olives and chopped cilantro and parsley.   Allow to cook for another five to ten minutes. 

Meanwhile, place the 1 1/3 cup chicken stock, 1 teaspoon olive oil and ½ teaspoon salt in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil.  Stir in couscous, remove from heat, cover and allow to sit for five minutes.

Pour sauce over the chicken and serve with couscous.

The flavors of the sauce will permeate the couscous nicely, but again, you can make couscous interesting by adding any stir-ins that you come up with.  Dice some zucchini and allow it to steam with the couscous; or stir in some chopped sun-dried tomatoes.  Stir in some golden raisins and slivered almonds.  Whatever you choose, I personally am a big fan of saffron so I use it with any of these combinations.  Saffron is expensive, but it goes a long way.  You only need about a quarter of a teaspoon for the above couscous recipe.  It is easily found in thread form in the spice section of well-stocked supermarkets.  Now that you’ve been inspired, warm up your next dinner table with the aromatic and colorful palette that Moroccan cuisine has to offer.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Spoon Fed

There is nothing that warms the soul like the enticing aroma and taste of a piping hot bowl of soup when the wind is howling outside and the snowflakes are tumbling down like old man winter’s confetti.  From those first aromatic whiffs within the steam that swirls up from the simmering pot to that last spoonful from your dinner bowl, soup has the ability to envelope us in warmth.

Soup is essentially liquid, such as stock, in which vegetables are cooked, sometimes with meat or seafood, sometimes with pasta or rice.  The combination is ladled into bowls and often served with toppings such as croutons, shredded cheese, sour cream, etc.  Soup is often served as a first course, but can also stand in as a main entrĂ©e accompanied by a salad and/or bread.

A soup can be served in its basic form of liquid with the vegetables and other ingredients free-floating.  It can also be pureed in a blender for a thick consistency.  Some soups are silky smooth, such as bisques which are typically pureed seafood with cream.  Other soups are very chunky, such as chowders While most soups are served hot and best enjoyed on a bleak winter’s day, some variations are served cold and can be a refreshing summer repast.  Examples of chilled soups include vichyssoise, a French style thick creamy potato and leek soup, and gazpacho, a chunky Spanish tomato-based vegetable soup.

There are probably as many soup recipes as there are mouths to feed; every nation around the world celebrates their specialty.  The French have bouillabaisse, a fish soup originating in Marseille; and also that favorite made with beef broth and caramelized onions, served over bread and topped with melted gruyere cheese. The Italians have their vegetable soup that we all know as minestrone, as well as ribollita, and my personal favorite from Tuscany: the garlicky cannellini bean and escarole soup ladled over toasty bread.  Callaloo is savored in the Caribbean, as gumbo is a favorite Creole soup; the Russians serve their borscht and the Hungarians partake in goulash.  When dining on sushi, we often commence the meal with a bowl of Japanese miso soup.  Mulligatawny is an Indian-influenced curried soup, often made with lentils.  The northeastern United States makes the most of their coastal bounty with clam chowders and Maryland crab soup.  Thai restaurants feature tom yum, and who hasn’t ordered wonton soup when Chinese food is the order of the day?  I have only begun to scratch the surface here, as there are many, many more.  An even greater plethora of variety can stem from your very own kitchen.  All you need to start with is a stock, and then what gets added to that stock is only as limited as your imagination.

Soup is perhaps the most forgiving, and therefore easiest, concoction to create.  I cannot fathom why anyone would pause at the canned soup aisle of the supermarket.  Once I made a few homemade soups, I tried to sample a once-upon-a-time favorite canned soup and was disgusted.  The flavor was so artificial, what little flavor I could detect beyond the saltiness.  Canned soups rarely taste like the flavors boasted on the labels, as the excess of added salt and monosodium glutamate overwhelm the small percentage of vegetables or garlic that are actually contained, leaving a very over-processed flavor that’s really not so comforting.  While making your own stock is best when preparing a pot of soup, using a quality store-bought carton of stock is perfectly acceptable if time is not on your side.  I like Kitchen Basics brand stock because its all-natural ingredient list contains only what you would likely use if you made stock yourself, and nothing that you wouldn’t.  So if you have a little downtime on a Sunday afternoon, make a big pot of soup and then refrigerate it once it cools.  You will have soup for later in the week when you come home from the daily grind in need of some winter comfort fare, without needing the time then to prepare it.

Mediterranean Roasted Eggplant Soup
2 medium eggplants, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 red onion, peeled, cut into eighths
6 garlic cloves, peeled
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper*
½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
Juice of 2 lemons
1 15-ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
1 32-ounce carton vegetable stock

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Arrange the eggplant, red pepper, onion and garlic cloves in a single layer over a cookie sheet.  Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables.  Sprinkle vegetables with salt, pepper and cayenne.  Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, tossing once halfway through roasting time, or until the vegetables have started to brown and are soft.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool at room temperature.  Transfer the roasted vegetables and any accumulated juices to a blender.  Add the lemon juice, half of the chick peas and the stock.  Puree ingredients until thick and well blended.  Pour into a pot over medium heat and warm through, stirring in the remainder of the chick peas.  Serves 2-3.

I recommend serving this soup with pita chips; and a light sprinkling of crumbled imported feta cheese, or a dollop of sour cream, on top will make it special.

* Brian and I love spicy food – really spicy food.  If you’re squeamish with the spice, I would recommend cutting back the cayenne pepper to ¼ teaspoon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: The Chipotle Chili

I love spicy food.  I love spicy Thai coconut curries with a nice amount of chili paste to fire it up.  I love Mexican food, with its flavor-boosting chili peppers.  The perfect spicy food, regardless of ethnic heritage, must present a spiciness that simultaneously has great flavor, not just heat for the sake of ripping your esophagus as the consumed edible plunges into your belly.  One of the smoothest spicy additions to any southwestern and Mexican dish is the chipotle.

Chipotle chili peppers are hot.  They are actually jalapenos, which have been dried and smoked, and it is that smoky appeal that lends the perfect touch of flavor.  Most jalapenos that we see in supermarkets are green.  These are unripened jalapenos, harvested during the growing season.  Those left on the vine to ripen until the end of the growing season turn deep red; these are the chilies selected for the smoking box to become chipotle chilies.  The final product wears a very dark and wrinkled skin, resembling a huge reddish brown raisin.  Chihuahua - no, not your little dog - a northern part of Mexico, is where most chipotles are produced.

Chipotle chilies can be purchased dried.  They are also widely available either canned or jarred in adobo sauce, and chipotle chili powder can also be purchased.  Chipotles tend to have a slightly thick skin, so they are best utilized as an ingredient in stews, salsas and other dishes rather than consumed raw.  While you may crave the distinctive smoky flavor that chipotles impart into your dish, respect the heat.  These are hot; a little goes a long way, so add them gradually and taste as you add.  It is a cross that all of us epicureans must bear, that of tasting the food.  There is a reason most chefs never seem to stop growing; just as a cop must face a life of danger in a crime-ridden world, so too a cook must endure the ramifications of tasting their wares.  At least the latter has a more enjoyable time; save for the occasional sampling of a dish into which one too many hot peppers were heaped into the skillet.

The smoky allure of the chipotle is the perfect flavor enhancer for chilies, sauces, stews, soups and salsas.  In my November 2011 blog titled ‘Savor the Spud’ I shared my recipe for Smokey Chipotle Mashed Potatoes.  Combined with citrus flavors such as orange juice, and a couple of other ingredients such as garlic, a little stock and a finely chopped herb, that sweet-smoky-hot essence makes a wonderful glaze for duck or pork.  Any Mexican-influenced recipe that typically calls for some other pepper, try substituting the chipotle instead for a unique new twist on a classic.  Here I will pass along my variation on Chicken Mole in which I use chipotle chilies instead of the typical poblanos.  


2 tablespoons slivered almonds

1 cup white rice
3 cups water
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon salt

5-6 chicken thighs, with skin and bone
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 canned chipotles, chopped
1 ½ teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1 tomato, chopped
2 tomatillos, cut into quarters
½ cup chicken stock
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
¼ cup raisins
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons slivered almonds

Place the slivered almonds in a small nonstick frying pan over medium-low heat.  Toast the almonds, tossing occasionally, until they have turned a light golden brown.  Remove from frying pan and set aside.

Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium pot.  Stir in the rice, the saffron and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until all of the liquid is absorbed.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the chicken and brown evenly on both sides.  Remove the chicken and set aside on a plate.  Add the onion, garlic, chipotle, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon and salt to the skillet.  Cook and stir for about a minute.  Next add the tomato, tomatillo, chicken stock, tomato sauce, raisins and cocoa powder.  Stir to combine, bring to a boil.  Return the chicken to the skillet, stir ingredients once more, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.   Remove the cover and simmer uncovered for another 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.   Arrange the saffron rice on a serving platter.  Remove the cooked chicken and arrange on top of the rice.  Allow the sauce in the skillet to lightly boil for another five minutes, uncovered.  Spoon the sauce over the chicken, and then sprinkle with the toasted almonds.

Next time your dinner cravings lead you toward south of the border flavors, try substituting a chipotle, or two or three, for whatever other chili pepper the recipe calls for.  It will make a nice change of pace – and a perfect accompaniment for that margarita too!