Chili con Carne

 

I can’t think of any dish more satisfying than a steaming bowl of earthy chili when winter’s grip bears down in earnest. Not that that happens here in Thailand, but vivid memories of winter’s bite are forever embedded in my psyche none the less. Chili’s colorful cultural past adds an almost palatable celebratory air that makes it an ideal choice for those informal holidays meals that lie ahead. Chili does freeze beautifully so why not get a head start and have chili essentially ready on demand.

Whenever I sit down to write about chiles there is that lingering conundrum about spelling and usage of the words that always comes to mind. When to use Chile and when to use Chili? Having lived among both Spanish and Mexican communities in the American Southwest and in Los Angeles for some time I have have sorted out the usage, but there are still ongoing heated debates about the correct spelling, definition, and usage of the words chile and chili.

In short chile is the Spanish word for all varieties of peppers (capsicums) that they discovered when they arrived in the new world. In Mexico however the word chili stems from the Nahuatl/ Aztec language dating back to at least the 7th century which describes the plants that produce all varieties chilis (capsicums).

Of course today both words have garnered various meanings not only for the peppers themselves but also for dishes that are made with them.

For example, in the North American southwest the word chile is used to describe varieties of capsicums associated with various levels of scoville heat as well as dishes made with the them. In the rest of North America the word chili (chili con carne) describes the popular spicy Tex Mex stew like dish that contains ground meat in a chile and tomato based sauce that often includes beans. South of the border chili con Carne is a chunky meat stew in a spicy chili based sauce without the addition of beans.

Confused? Just to make the differentiation even a little more complicated the Nahuatl language is still widely used in rural central Mexico as is the word chili. So in Mexican communities living on both sides of the border use both words interchangeably.

Generally speaking, it is safe to say that chile is the appropriate word to reference all varieties of capsicums with heat. Chili is reserved for describing the popular dish chili con carne as well as the seasoning mixture of ground dried chile powder mixed with other seasoning spices. Pure ground chiles without other seasonings would be called chile powder.

For more tasty information on this spicy subject (click here) for Chili (Basics).

The recipe that follows more closely follows a Mexican chili con carne that includes dried chiles to deeply flavor the sauce. However I have used ground beef instead of chunks of beef, and included beans in the chili which are served separately in Mexico. For me, including the beans in the chili makes a more complex and richly flavorsome Mexican meal in a single bowl. But maybe I’m just biased having grown up eating Tex Mex chile.

 

Chili con Carne    serves 6

  • 12 dried guajillo chiles, split lengthwise, seeds removed
  • 1 or 2 dried chipotle chiles (or canned chipotles in adobo)
  • 6 garlic cloves, skin on
  • 3 tablespoons lard or cold pressed peanut oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds, ground
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano (Mexican if available) 
  • 4 vine ripe tomatoes (or canned Italian plum tomatoes)
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon pure ground red chile powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt + more to taste
  • 1 quart beef or chicken stock + more as needed, preheated
  • 2 cups cooked beans (pinto, kidney, or black)
  • salsa fresca
  • crema or sour cream 
  • warm corn and flour tortillas

Warm a heavy bottom skillet over medium heat. Place the guahillo chiles in the skillet. Using a spatula press the chiles against the bottom of he pan. Let them toast for a minute or so and then flip them over, again pressing them against the bottom of the skillet and toasting another minute. Remove them and set them aside to cool briefly. Then remove the stems, tear the chiles into pieces, and place them in a sauce pan. Add the whole dried chipotle chiles and add just enough water to cover all the chiles and place the pan over low heat. Bring to a low simmer and cook until the chiles are soft and pliable, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool. Remove the stems from the chipotle chiles and transfer all the chiles to a blender jar and add enough cooking liquid to cover. Reserve the remaining cooking liquid to use later as needed,

Using the same skillet toast the unpeeled garlic cloves until they are lightly colored on all sides. Remove them and set them aside to cool. Then peel off the skin, mince the garlic, and set aside.

Add 1  tablespoons lard or oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot add the onions and saute until they are soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the chopped garlic, ground cumin, and oregano and saute another couple of minute. Then transfer the contents of the pan to the blender jar.

Add 1  tablespoons of the lard or oil to the same skillet set over medium heat. When hot add the tomatoes (fresh or canned) and fry them until they are soft and lightly caramelized. Break them up and continue to cook until very soft. Then transfer them to the blender jar including the juices.

Add enough reserved chile liquid to to fill the blender jar to about half full. Begin pulsing until the ingredients are broken down and then increase the speed to high until the mixture is very smooth. If it is very thick thin with the remaining reserved chile liquid or stock.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of lard or oil in a soup or stock pot set over medium heat. When hot add the ground beef and cook until the meat is evenly browned, stirring from time to time. Add the clove, bay leaves, cocoa powder, red chile powder, and salt. Stir until well combined. Then pour in the hot stock and stir. When the contents reach a boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.
Add the beans and continue to cook another 30 minutes. The consistency of the chili should be very thick, but add a little stock to thin it out a bit if needed. Taste and add additional salt to taste. Skim off excess fat floating on the surface of the chili and discard.

At this point the chili is ready to serve. Otherwise transferred the chili to containers and cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating or freezing.

Serving:

This chili is so rich and flavorsome it needs very little embellishment other than a dollop of sala fresca and a swirl of sour cream or crema with each serving. Be sure to have a basket full of warm corn and flour tortillas and a bowl of salasa fresca placed on the table.

Crema is a Mexican sour cream that you can make by simply stirring a small amount of whole milk into a bowl of sour cream. 

Buen provecho!

Mediterranean Mussels Stew

Mediterranean Mussels Stew

 

I was in my kitchen the other day admiring a gorgeous pile of succulent New Zealand green lipped mussels and some plump shrimp that I had purchased earlier in the day. As I gazed, an ad hok seafood stew was formulating in my mind using some Mediterranean ingredients that I already had on hand. Some pancetta to saute along with some onions, garlic, carrots and celery would beautifully flavor a sofrito  base for the broth. Adding to that the water reserved after steaming the mussels to the stew broth would introduce the briny flavors of the sea. A flourish of  chile flakes and Spanish smoked paprika would add a nice spicy heat and a rustic earthy flavor to the stew.  A final splash of a fruity Italian olive oil and a spritz of crisp lemon juice just before serving would really bring this robust mussel stew to life.

New Zealand green lipped mussels are more available than other varieties of mussels here in Thailand. They are the largest mussels available and perfect for a mixed seafood soup or stew. Their flesh is plump, succulent, and juicy. The shells are quite large so usually not included in the dish like the smaller mussel shells you would find in a French bouillabaisse, an Italian zuppa de cozze , or a Catalan zaruela de mariscos. New Zealand green lipped mussels are shipped across the globe. That said, shells or no shells in the stew, any variety of mussels available to you are suitable for this recipe.

This is an easy seafood stew to prepare, it looks spectacular, and is sure to WOW a crowd!

 

New Zealand Green Lipped Mussels

New Zealand Green Lipped Mussels

 

Mediterranean Mussel Stew     serves 6

  • 1 kilo/2.2 pounds New Zealand green lipped mussels, or another available variety
  • 500g / 1 pound medium size shrimp, shells removed, deveined, tails attached 
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 4 thin slices pancetta, finely chopped
  • 2 onions, peeled and finely diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • 3 stalks celery with leaves, finely diced, leaves thinly sliced, and whole leaves reserved for garnish
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh marjoram
  • 1 1/2   liters/ 1 1/4    quarts fish or chicken stock, preheated
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon chile flakes
  • 1 ½ teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika
  • 6 medium sized yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾ inch chunks
  • finishing quality olive oil
  •  fresh lemon wedges

Soak the mussels in cold water and then scrub the shells to remove any dirt or seaweed that may be attached.

Place a steaming rack in a stock pot and add about 2 cups of water  below the rack. Place the mussels on the rack and bring the water to a boil. Lower to a simmer and place a lid on the pot. Steam the mussels for about 6 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Remove the mussels from the pot and set aside in a bowl to cool. Any mussels that have not opened should be discarded.. Transfer the steaming water left in the pot to a container and set aside to use later.

Place the same pot over medium low heat. When hot add the olive oil. When the oil is hot add the pancetta and saute while stirring continuously until the fat has melted. Then add the onions, stir to coat with the oil, and saute until the onions are translucent, about 6 or 8 minutes. Add the garlic and saute another minute or two. Then add the wine and cook until the wine has been completely absorbed.

Stir in the carrots and celery and saute until  soft, about 6 minutes. Add the bay leaves and marjoram and stir to combine.. Add the reserved broth from steaming the mussels and the preheated stock. Stir until all the ingredients are combined.

Once the stew is boiling, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Then stir in salt, pepper, chile flakes, and smoked paprika and stir until combined. Then stir in the potatoes and continue to simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the stew is simmering, if you are using New Zealand mussels you will want to remove the mussels from their shells and discard the shells. If you are using other smaller mussels you can leave them in tact.

Once the potatoes are fully cooked you can add the mussels and shrimp to the broth. Simmer for about 3 to 5 minutes. Taste the broth and season with more salt to taste.

Serving:

Serve the stew in shallow individual soup plates with 4 or 5 mussels per portion and plenty of broth. Sparingly drizzle each serving with a finishing olive oil and garnish with a few celery leaves and a slice of fresh lemon.

French Apple Cake

French Apple Cake

 

I have read quite a few recipes for this very simple French apple cake over time, but never actually got around to making it until a few days ago. What an unexpected revelation! My expectations, as simple as this cake appears to be, were delightfully misconstrued. This cake is absolutely delicious in the best possible ways. Its moist buttery custard like texture surrounding tender chunks of apples is pure perfection. Neither too sweet nor fancy, this is a cake I, and hopefully you, will be baking again, and again, and again.

The secrets to success here are using a variety of absolutely fresh crisp apples and the best quality butter you can find, preferably a French butter or a full fat brand of butter in North America.

In my kitchen I like to keep on hand a serviceable butter for cooking and a French butter for baking and for spreading on bread and toast. The quality, flavor, and color of the butter you use when baking is going to significantly impact the overall flavor, texture, and indeed the aroma of all your baked goods. Fat content matters. French butter has maintained centuries old standards in how the cows are fed, the quality and culturing of the cream, and producing a higher butter fat content that supports flavor as well as a supple texture. President brand is a serviceable French butter that is widely available in grocery stores in the US and Europe and well worth the extra coins spent. Other brands to look for in the US are Plugra, Keller’s European Style, and Land O’Lakes extra creamy butter.

French Apple Cake

  • 5 assorted large firm apples (about 1 ¾ pounds)
  • 9 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided
  • ¾ cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons, divided
  • ¾ cup all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 large organic eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons dark rum (or Calvados)

In a small saucepan melt 8 tablespoons of butter and set aside to cool.

Peel the apples, cut them into quarters, remove the cores, and cut  into 3/4 inch chunks.

Place a large skillet over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon butter. When the butter is melted add the apples and toss until coated with butter. Then sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar over the apples and cook for about 6 to 8 minutes or until the apples just begin to color. Transfer the apples to a large plate and set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C with rack centered in the oven. Top the rack with the baking  sheet.

For this recipe I would suggest using an oven thermometer to be sure the oven temperature is spot on.

Generously butter and lightly flour an 8 or 9 inch springform pan.

In a small bowl whisk together the flour, baking power, and salt and set aside.

In a mixing bowl whisk the eggs until foamy. Add ¾ cup of sugar and whisk vigorously until well combined. Add the vanilla and rum (or Calvados) and whisk until combined.

Then whisk in half the flour mixture until combined. Then add half the melted butter and whisk. Add the remaining flour mixture and melted butter and whisk until the batter is smooth and thick. Then add the apples and, using a silicon spatula, fold them into the batter until evenly coated.

Scrape the mixture into the springform pan and level out the top a bit. Sprinkle the top with a tablespoon of sugar and transfer to the oven.

Monitor your temperature and baking time carefully. Total baking time will be between 50 and 60 minutes. You want to rotate the cake after 25 minutes for even baking.

Be careful not to over bake this cake as you want the texture of the cake to be very moist with an almost custardy texture. The cake will be done when a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. The batter should be just set as it will firm up a bit once taken out of the oven.

When the cake is finished set it out on a cooling rack. After about five minutes run a small flexible pastry spatula around the sides of the baking pan, open the side the pan, and remove it.

Best to let the cake cool completely before transferring it to a cake platter. The easiest way to do this is to run a small flexible pastry spatula around the edges of the cake. Then slide a long pasty spatula under the cake to gently release it and then slide it onto a cake platter.

Serving:

This cake should be served either warm from the oven or at room temperature. The cake is just perfect served as it is, but if you like add a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraiche, or a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Less is more in this case.

Bon appetit!

Smoky Mexican Roasted Pumpkin Soup

Smoky Mexican Roasted Pumpkin Soup

As a follow up to my last post on Roasted Kabocha Squash, here is a quick and easy Mexican calabaza (pumpkin) soup you can make from scratch or with any remaining roasted squash you may have on hand.

The smoky sweet flavor and deep rounded heat of dried chipotle chiles pairs beautifully with roasted squash and gives this robust rustic soup an authenticity you might find in a villages in northern Mexico, the central highlands, Veracruz on the Gulf coast, or in Oaxaca in the south eastern Mexico.

Chipotle Chiles

Chipotle Chiles

Chipotle chiles are made with fully ripened red jalapeno chiles that are then smoked and dried over smoldering pecan wood embers. The pecan tree is indigenous to Mexico and is the wood of choice for drying chipotles. Chipotle varieties are readily available all over Mexico, and in Mexican or Latin markets north of the border. Canned chipotles packed in red adobo sauce are more readily available both in the US and abroad and they can be substituted in the following recipe if rinsed before using.

 

Smoky Mexican Roasted Pumpkin Soup     Serves 6

  • 1 small pumpkin or squash roasted
  • 1 dried chipotle chile, re hydrated, seeded, and finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, peeled, and finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic peeled and finely minced
  • 1 ½ cups finely minced celery with leaves
  • 1 ½ quarts hot stock or water plus more as needed
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt+ more to taste 
  • corn tortilla chips of choice (Garden of Eten’ is my favorite store bought brand)
  • Mexican cotija cheese or feta as a substitute.

Follow the recipe instructions for roasting squash including  optional seasonings. (click here for recipe)

To rehydrate the chipotle chile place it in a small pan with just enough water to cover. Simmer over very low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the chipotle and set aside to cool. Reserve the cooking liquid to use later. When the chipotle is cool, slit it open lengthwise and remove the seeds and discard them. Mince the chile and set aside.

Place a soup pot over a medium low flame and when hot add the oil. Once the oil is hot add the onions and saute, stirring from time to time, until they are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute. Add the minced chipotle and stir to combine. Then stir in the celery and saute for another 5 minutes.

Once the celery is very soft add the roasted pumpkin, the hot stock or water, and the reserved chipotle cooking water to the pot and stir. Once the soup returns to a boil lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Top up with additional stock or water as needed.

Remove the pot from the heat and using an immersion blender, or blender, blend until the soup is very smooth. Add salt and blend again. Taste and adjust the salt to your own taste. The soup should be quite thick, but you can thin it down with addition hot stock or water if you wish.

Serving:
Cotija is a hard cows milk cheese from Michoacan in the central highlands of Mexico. Available in some Mexican markets or online. Otherwise I find Feta is an excellent substitute.

Ladle the soup into individual bowls, Push 6 or 8 corn tortilla chips in the center of the soup and scatter crumbled cotija (or feta) over the soup and serve.

Buen provecho!

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