GAME DAY CHILI

Every once in a while, we human beings are bold enough to take an idea, a possibility, a “what if” or a “hmm, could we?” and allow it to germinate in our mind, to take us over, to use us and pull us into creation mode.  Then, if we’re crazy enough, we begin to speak our idea aloud—we tell other people, they tell other people.  And before we know it, we are wed to the thing, we are given by it, we find ourselves sitting at the kitchen table (right, Julie?) in our pajamas, working and working but the work almost doesn’t feel like work.  Or at the very least it feels like the right kind of work to be doing.

For me, I find it’s all too easy to watch the news, to read the paper, to look at the world and think “I wish I could help,” to feel deeply for the suffering of others and then put that all aside and move on.  But not Julie van Rosendaal.  She created something, a beautiful something, something I am very proud to be a part of:

Inside this cookbook, you’ll find recipes and gorgeous photographs from some of the best chefs and bloggers on the internet, a group in which I’m honored to be included.  While the book was put together in record time (just under three weeks!), it’s lost absolutely nothing in terms of quality.  Preview a handful of the pages online; they’re gorgeous.

You can purchase the soft cover edition for $25, the hardcover for $50.  Every penny raised from sales will go straight to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, via the Canadian Red Cross & Doctors Without Borders.

I think the Blog Aid cookbook would make a great birthday, housewarming, wedding, Mother’s or Father’s Day gift.  Or just buy it as a statement of faith, a vote on the side of hope and good work, a testament to the fact that one woman’s idea can become food in a child’s mouth, medicine for a wounded man, glossy cookbook pages you hold in your hand.

GAME-DAY CHILI (among other Superbowl food ideas)

I hardly ever make chili the same way twice—depending upon what’s in my pantry, spice cabinet, freezer, & fridge, all kinds of meats and seasonings have made their way into the pot.  Don’t be afraid to mix meats—pork, venison, beef—and change up the type of beans you use (if you use beans at all).  If you have a crock pot or slow cooker, now is the time to drag it out!  It serves perfectly for chili-making.  Don’t worry if you don’t have one, though, you can still brew up some perfectly good chili the old-fashioned, stovetop way.

Every chili has some “signature moves”—mine are dark beer, cinnamon, & a little cocoa powder.  All three of these do a little something to the flavor…you can’t pinpoint what you’re tasting, but it tastes good.  Mushrooms may seem like a strange ingredient, but they bump up the “meatiness” quotient of the chili without you actually having to add meat at all.  Control the heat to match your own preference, and bear in mind that big pots of chili usually get hotter after a day or two in the fridge!

ingredients:

2 lb. ground sirloin

1 cup chopped crimini or white mushrooms

1 onion, diced

3 carrots

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 serrano or 2 minced jalapeño peppers (if you like/can handle the heat!)

4 T chili powder

1 T cocoa powder

1 tsp. chipotle chili powder

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. cayenne pepper

½ tsp. cinnamon

4 cups beef stock

1 dark beer (I used Negra Modelo)

1 28-oz. can fire-roasted, crushed tomatoes

2 14-oz cans kidney beans (but only if their presence won’t offend your sensibilities)

2 T Worcestershire sauce

2 T chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

1 dried ancho chile (you could certainly use another type)

a few dashes of liquid smoke

vegetable oil

potential accompaniments: white rice, spaghetti, tortilla chips, Fritos, cornbread, cheddar cheese, sour cream, scallions

Mix all of the spices in a small bowl.  Bring a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, then  brown the meat, in batches if necessary.  As you cook the meat, add in some of the spice mixture to each batch.

Once the meat has browned, transfer to a crock pot or large, heat-proof bowl.  Drain most but not all of the accumulated fat—swirl in a little vegetable oil, then sauté the onions and garlic for a 3-4 minutes before adding the carrots & mushrooms.

If using a crock pot or slow cooker, once the vegetables are soft, add them to the beef.  Pour in all of the remaining ingredients and cover, cooking for full cycle or at least two hours before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

If cooking on the stove, return the meat to the pot and add the remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for at least an hour before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

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KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

I cut my hair short in high school, for many reasons and for no reason at all.  Convenience, defiance, sophistication, some combination thereof.  It ranged from ear-length to pixie-short until I buzzed it all off my freshman year of college.  Head-shaving was the social experiment that I undertook with my fortuitously-assigned college roommate Rebecca. Bolder and defiant than I could conceive of being at that point in my life, Rebecca was my first true friend on campus (and remains one of my favorite people on the planet, I might add).  Shaving our heads was her idea.

Bless my poor father’s heart—he always harbored visions of me with long, flowing tresses like the hip-shaking heroines of the Bollywood movies he loved to watch.  He was forever making remarks that he found funny but I found annoying, encouraging me to “grow it out!” and “not so short!”  But to my surprise and perhaps disappointment, he handled my shaved head remarkably well, voicing no critiques and even silencing my mother who clearly thought I had lost my mind.

Though I never shaved it again–

a) I’m not cut out to live a renegade lifestyle

b) my head is oddly shaped

c) lack of hair dampened my flirting potential, which truly affected my quality of life

–once my hair grew back, I continued to style it short.  I had no reason to wear it longer and plenty of reasons to keep it cropped: I lived in hot climates (Memphis, then Houston, then Tucson), I like a low-maintenance morning routine, I had been told once or twice that I looked like the Indian Halle Berry.  Why mess with a good thing?

In my first semester of graduate school, my parents proposed a trip to India for my cousin’s wedding.  She was three years my junior and had become engaged to a man that she met herself at another family wedding and secretly “dated” before coming home and suggesting to her parents that he might be a good match for her.  I rather liked this schema: it was spunky and made the prospect of braving a wedding (at which I would be the noticeably older, unmarried, American cousin) far more palatable.  Not to mention, I had not been to India, the country of my parents’ birth, in over a decade, and my father and I had only traveled there together once before, when I was an infant.

A few months before we were scheduled to leave for India, my father asked me to grow out my hair.

“Nito,” he said, after he had so cleverly taken me out to lunch in Memphis, plied me with pulled pork barbecue and worked me into quite the food coma, “What if you grew your hair for a little while?  Please don’t cut it before we go to India.  It will just look better, your relatives will like to see it, not so short.”

I knew that my relatives weren’t the only ones who would like to see my hair “not so short,” but refrained from saying so.

“But doesn’t the nose ring count for anything?” I asked him, mostly teasing since I had pierced it on a whim in college, not out of any deep-seated cultural agenda.

“Maybe a five-point bonus,” he said, keeping the joke.  “But your hair could look so nice!”

He said “could,” as in “doesn’t right now,” which I noticed but also choose to ignore.  Instead, I decided to leave my hair untouched.  After all, I had cut it for no particular reason, surely I could grow it out when it meant so much to my father?

“I’m going to cut it as soon as we get back, though, okay?”

“Okay,” he consented.  “It’s your hair.”


My father died six weeks after we returned from India.  Except for the occasional trim, I haven’t cut my hair since.  I grow my hair for a dead man who carried his hair on his arms and his legs and his chest and his back, but not his head, curling and dark. He would be so pleased if he could see this hair.  This hair, my hair, all the way down my back, long and flowing the way he always wanted.

Tomorrow, I’m having my first hair cut in nearly four years.  Not an arbitrary cut, but one that will help mark my twenty-seventh birthday and which will result in an envelope full of my hair being mailed here.  You see, my friend Rebecca and I have many things in common: we’re giant nerds, know more Disney song lyrics than we really ought to admit, have serious sweet tooths, and love to craft things with our hands.  But the most powerful thing we share is the one we never counted on; losing a parent within nine months of each other.

Rebecca’s mom Karen fought an exhausting battle against cancer for two-and-a-half years, one of those terrifying up-and-down rides full of uncertainty and pain, loss and hope.  My friend put her life on hold to tend her mother’s every need, exhibiting the kind of courage and relentlessness that humbles one who witnesses it.  By the time Karen was diagnosed, right in the middle of our senior year of college, Rebecca had become my family and I, part of hers.  My own father’s death very surprisingly interrupted the trajectory of things; who could have guessed that I would be the one to lose a parent first?

To this day it stuns me, how in the midst of their own sadness and grief, Rebecca and her parents tended to me so unselfishly.  I remember spending part of an afternoon at the hospital with them, not long after my father had died and during a time along the cancer roller-coaster when chemo had stripped Karen’s head completely clean of hair.  She had wigs, but they didn’t come close to recreating her.  The most realistic ones are, of course, the most expensive.

“Your hair is so beautiful, Nishta,” she told me, in a voice I’ll always be able to hear.  “I wish I could wear it.”

“I’ll grow it out for you,” I told her.  “I promise.”

Tomorrow I’ll be making good on my promise at the same time I let go of the hair that feels so connected to my father.  I’m nervous, excited, and proud, and I promise to post some before-and-after pictures on Friday, provided that I don’t become totally incapacitated by all of the food I’m planning to eat between now and then (with a birthday today & Thanksgiving tomorrow, let’s hope I can even fit into my pants on Friday!)

I’m wishing all of you very festive and delicious Thanksgivings, full of people you love and lots of linger-worthy moments.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE & “GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

Rebecca’s mama made the world’s best home-cooked Mexican rice, and she generously passed on her secret to me through her daughter: 1 ¾ cups liquid for every 1 cup of rice. Her ratio yields flavorful rice with the ideal texture and every time I make it (which is often), I picture her in my kitchen, proud that I’m working her recipe.

This rice makes an excellent accompaniment to so many things, but my favorite pairing is with a big pot of simple, vegetable-laced black beans.  “Grad school food,” I call it, given how cheap it is to make, while at the same time being comforting and tasty.  Feel free to swap in or out other vegetables such as chayote, fresh spinach, mushrooms, etc.

KAREN’S MEXICAN RICE

1 cup long-grain rice
1 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 medium ripe tomatoes, diced or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 T cumin
½ T chili powder
salt
vegetable oil

optional: sliced onion

In a large skillet with a fitted lid, sauté the garlic (plus onion, if you’re using it) in a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat.  After two minutes, up the heat to medium-high and add the rice, toasting in the oil until the rice begins to brown and become fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Pour in the chicken or vegetable broth, then stir in the spices.  Cover the mixture with the lid and allow it to come to a boil.  Once the mixture boils, dial back he heat to medium-low, stirring periodically until the liquid is nearly gone and the rice is fully cooked.

Toss in the tomatoes and check the rice for salt, seasoning to your liking before serving hot.

“GRAD SCHOOL” BLACK BEANS

2 cans black beans, fully or partially drained*
1 can corn (or 2 ears’ worth of fresh corn, off the cob)
2 carrots, peeled & sliced ½-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 ½ T cumin
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. salt
vegetable oil

optional: ½ or a whole jalapeño, minced
potential garnishes: grated cheese, sour cream, cilantro, salsa, raw onion, shredded cabbage

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, sauté the bell peppers (jalapeño, if you’re using it) and carrots in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Add the black beans, corn, & spices, then mix well.

Cover and turn down the heat to low.  After 10-12 minutes, the beans should be heated through.  Check for salt, then serve over rice.

*If you want drier beans, drain all the way.  For a soupier effect, drain only one of the two cans.

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MARINATED SALAD

I can’t take any credit for this recipe. All of it goes to Veena.

marinated salad top view

This is one of those dishes that acquires a following, the kind that makes people come back for seconds and beg a recipe card, the kind they start making themselves and hooking others onto. Like those charts they showed us in high school about how quickly & widely an STD can spread, only far less terrifying.

There’s nothing unlikeable about this dish (I know, Emma, I can hear you protesting—go ahead and leave out the capers, okay?)

a) You can make it ahead of time, in fact, in tastes much, much better that way.

b) It lasts an incredibly long time in the fridge.

c) Works equally well in all seasons.

d) Is dirt cheap.

e) OH YEAH, it’s also crazy-delicious & good for you.

I’ve served this alongside sandwiches and burgers, in the midst of a potluck spread, with pita & hummus, as an easy dinner-party vegetable. I bring it to work on a regular basis because it keeps so darn long and goes with almost anything else I decide on for lunch. This salad is also a great choice to make for a family who is grieving, just had a baby, or is in a similar state of overwhelm—you can provide a healthier counterpoint to the usually carb-and-cheese-laden dishes that tend to be delivered in such circumstances.

My mom’s been making this salad for as long as I can remember; the tradition in our family evolved such that we always had it on New Year’s Day, along with the equally famous shrimp creole (that’s coming this winter, ya’ll, don’t worry) & wild rice. Marinated salad works wonderfully alongside this main course, but also serves another purpose; allowing everyone to fulfill their black-eyed pea quotient in a tasty way.

If you are not familiar with the food commandments down here below the Mason-Dixon line, one very strong and non-negotiable one is that you must eat black eyed peas on the first day of the new year, or face twelve months of bad luck. For kids who were tortured by the taste, the compromise became one bean per month, but I’m pretty sure with this dish, you and/or your kids won’t have any trouble eating more than twelve peas.

MOM’S MARINATED SALAD

This is dead easy to make, I promise you can’t mess it up. Feel free to substitute fresh herbs for the dried or dried beans for the canned. You can also used canned corn instead of fresh, but since corn on the cob is so plentiful, cheap, & delicious right now, I recommend you go that route.

Any combination of beans will work, so throw in what you have on hand (cannelini beans are nice, as are pintos). Make sure not to use any with added salt or flavor. If you normally object to red onion, I heartily encourage you to try it here—the vinegar will cut much of the bite, and it just looks so much prettier than white or yellow would.

ingredients: marinated salad

1 can each:

dark red kidney beans

garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chickpeas)

black eyed peas

green beans*

2 ears’ worth of fresh corn kernels corn

1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, roughly chopped

Drain the beans in a large colander & rinse. Transfer to a sizeable bowl, then add corn and artichoke hearts.  Heat the following in a small saucepan:

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

Once the sugar has fully dissolved and the mixture boils, remove from heat.

Stir in:

½ red onion, very thinly sliced

2 T capers

1 T dried parsley

1 T garlic powder (less if you aren’t a garlic fan)

1 tsp. chives, minced salt & pepper (be generous!)

Let the vinegar mixture sit for about 5 minutes, then pour over the vegetables. Mix thoroughly and then drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil. For the best taste, allow to sit on room temperature for 1 hour before serving or storing in the fridge for future use.

*If you want to use fresh green beans, you’ll need to blanch them first.

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BLACK BEAN SALSA

Before I do anything else, allow me to show you a magic trick.

cilantro
Ladies and Gentlemen, right here before your very eyes—one bunch of cilantro, ends trimmed, placed upright in a glass with a bit of cold water.  Doesn’t look like much, you say?  Not very impressive, you say?

Well.  Little do you know!  Arranged this way & covered with the very plastic bag it came home in, I can keep cilantro fresh & useable for a month!  I am not exaggerating!  It IS magic—I love cooking with cilantro (obviously, I am not one of those people for whom it tastes like soap) but I hated having to throw it away after it became wilted & spoiled too quickly.

No longer, my friends!  We can all thank my dear friend Ari’s mom Georgia (yes, she is as awesome as her name) for this tidbit.

Now, onto the recipe at hand…I love black beans.  They’re cheap.  They’re yummy.  They’re versatile.  AND, they’re good for you.  Summertime bonus!

black bean salsa

This little concoction is great for a potluck/casual party, or just for dinner.  It tastes just as good the next day, with the exception of the avocadoes, which turn an unappetizing, slimy brown.  Ew.

So if you’re planning for a big crowd, make this as-is—there won’t be any left, I promise.  But if you’re making for a smaller crew / want to take some for lunch later in the week / need to mix this ahead of time, I recommend combining everything BUT the avocadoes first.

Then, reserve whatever portion you’d like to have for later & store it in the fridge until you’re ready to add avocadoes & eat up!  I like this dish a little more towards room temperature than cold, so you might want to take it out a bit before you plan to serve.

(If I may be so presumptuous as to suggest—it’s real, real good with blue corn tortilla chips.  I’m especially partial to Garden of Eatin’.)

BLACK BEAN SALSA corn off the cob

2 cans black beans (plain, no flavoring or added salt)

3 of the prettiest tomatoes you can find

3 ripe avocados

2-3 ears fresh corn

2 limes

a handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

optional: half a jalapeño, seeded & minced

Drain & rinse the black beans in a colander—shake well to rid of all liquid.  Shuck the corn & cut the kernels off into a large mixing bowl.  Add the black beans to the corn, then cube the tomatoes and add them as well.

Add the juice of both limes, cumin, salt, & jalapeño, if using .  Stir everything together & sprinkle in cilantro.  If serving immediately, add cubed avocados & fold gently.  Taste & add salt if needed.

Serve with chips or as a side.  Also excellent with grilled fish or meats.

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MAKE-YOUR-OWN HUMMUS

Hummus has become almost ubiquitous on the American food scene in the last few years—and I think this is a good thing. I love hummus; it’s delicious, good for you, and pretty much everybody likes it. It can even motivate finicky kids to voluntarily eat carrot and celery spears (as vehicles for dipping, of course). Unfortunately, ubiquity often leads to mediocrity and such, I find, is the case for poor hummus.

Too many pre-made versions are slimy and unappetizingly pasty; even the stuff that comes out of some restaurant kitchens is seasoned with such a tame hand as to induce yawning. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Now, great people of the internet, is the time for change.

chickpea goodness

If you own a food processor or a blender, out-of-this-world hummus is within your grasp. All it takes is a few (cheap) ingredients and the willingness to taste-test until you get the seasonings the way you like. Hummus is the perfect dinner-party staple because you can make it wayyyyyy ahead of time and, should you make it from scratch, you will impress the heck out of all of your guests.  I like to make a big batch and take it to work on Monday and eat my way through it all week.

A note about fussiness: you can (and should) make this recipe with canned chickpeas—it will still taste MUCH better than the store-bought variety and can literally be done in minutes. However, this is one place where high-maintenance-foodery does prevail. Starting with dried chickpeas instead of canned will take you to a new level of hummus enjoyment. If you’re up for giving dried chickpeas a whirl (added broken economy bonus = they’re even cheaper than the canned stuff!), please do; I promise it will be worth it.

HUMMUS…MAKE THAT REALLY, REALLY GOOD HUMMUS

special equipment: Cuisinart or other food processor, blender (only the heavy-duty kind)

ingredients:

partial components

partial components

1 16 oz. can (approx. 2 cups) chickpeas, a.k.a. garbanzo beans /ceci beans*

2 T tahini a.k.a tahina/tahine**

2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

1 tsp. salt (if you soak your own chickpeas, you may need to add more)

½ tsp. ground cumin

juice of 1 lemon

½ cup water (reserve the cooking liquid if using dried beans), more if needed

¼ cup olive oil

optional garnishes—oregano, paprika, or za’tar spice blend
pine nuts (toasted or untoasted)
drizzle of olive oil

Place all ingredients except olive oil in food processor or blender. Process until smooth, adding water as needed until desired texture is reached. Check the hummus’ taste and add extra garlic, salt, or cumin accordingly. Finally, with the processor or blender running, pour in olive oil.
Transfer to bowl and garnish with any of the options listed above. Goes excellently well with pita chips (storebought or homemade), crackers, and any kind of cut vegetable.

hummus with veggies

*If using dried, you’ll need to soak your beans overnight and then cook them for an hour before making your hummus. The chickpeas will double in amount, so if you want to end up with 2 cups, you only need to soak 1 cup of beans. Cover them with room temperature water and allow to soak overnight. You can stash them in the fridge at this point if you’re not planning to use them right away. Drain off the soaking liquid and transfer to a medium saucepan, covering with fresh water. Bring the mixture to a boil and allow the beans to simmer for an hour or until soft. Drain the beans but RESERVE THE COOKING LIQUID! Save it to thin your hummus; it will add more flavor than plain water.

**Tahini is a sesame seed paste most often used in Middle Eastern food. You may need to go to an ethnic grocery store for this, but it’s actually become readily available—check the “International Foods” aisle of your regular grocery store or call around to more foodie-inclined locations. Once you’ve opened it, keep your jar in the fridge for months. Like natural peanut butter, you’ll need to stir it when using again.

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