Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Chili Incident

Chili is one of those things that is hard to mess up. If you put some combination of meat and beans in a pot, you’re going to wind up with something approximating chili. The real fun begins when a plain-Jane chili like that no longer cuts it, and you are forced to get creative, or dare I say, impulsive.

Chile is a South American country occupying a long, narrow strip of land between the Andes mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

I haven’t cooked chili for very long, and I don’t think I've ever made the exact same chili twice. That is to say, before I started working at my current job, I never made it very often. However, once I saw that my company would have a yearly chili cook-off competition, the take-no-prisoners competitive side of me kicked in. Basically, anyone who wanted to participate would bring in chili in a crock pot, and it would be doled out in plastic shot glass-like cups with a number on it corresponding to which chili it was. The point is that you didn't know whose chili you were voting for.

The first year that I participated, my chili was pretty basic- ground turkey, black beans, fire-roasted corn, diced tomato, chili powder, Sam Adams Latitude 48 IPA beer. It was all stuff that I thought sounded good together. As I went through the grocery store picking up this and that, I just tried to visualize how it was all go together. It turned out great and everyone was freaking out about the corn in the chili, like they’d never seen that before. Maybe they hadn't…I wasn't really a chili connoisseur, but I thought corn would be good in it. And it was! And I won.

Marge, have you seen my chili boots?

The next year I knew that if I did the same chili, people would know whose it was and wouldn't vote for it (who wants to see the same person win every time?) Plus, I figured that people would be stepping up their chili game. This time, I decided to take some of the comments I had received about my previous chili to heart- people mentioned that it just wasn't spicy enough. To be fair, I erred on the side of mild instead of hot because I didn't know what people liked. My experience had shown that no one liked food as spicy as I did. And boy, I like it spicy. This time, it was going to be spicy.

Also, New York's hottest club.

I don’t remember the exact specifics of this chili, but what I do recall is that it was turkey, tomatoes, black and chili beans, regular corn (which more people used this time!) and Bhut Jolokia sauce, also known as the ghost chili. The sauce I was using was bought from a hot sauce specialty store in Florida, and clocked in at over 1,000,000 on the Scoville scale. My original plan was to finish cooking the chili and then add maybe a tablespoon or so to the batch to give it a nice kick. Nothing too painful, but enough to make you sweat a little.

Unfortunately, that didn't exactly happen. What is it that they say about the best laid plans? “The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go astray, and leave us not but grief and pain, for promised joy!” (As an aside, I actually remember that quote from 8th grade English class. Thanks Ms. Elliott, you awful, awful teacher.) Anyway, pay special attention to the “grief and pain” part. Tablespoon, right? I knew that this sauce, even with a tiny drop the size of a drop of water, was enough to put you on your ass for 30 minutes. A tablespoon should be more than enough. I shook and then opened the bottle and went to pour my tablespoon, expecting it to come out slowly, almost like ketchup. In hindsight, I don’t know why I expected that to happen.

About 1/3 of the bottle unceremoniously dumped directly into the pot of chili.
I didn’t know what to do. Should I try to scoop it out? Should I just leave it? How many people would my chili be responsible for killing? I made the command decision to leave it in there. They wanted hot, right? I don’t know if they wanted something this hot, but I guess we would find out. About the time that I started to mix the sauce into the chili, my wife yelled over from the couch “What is going? My eyes are burning!”

Oh boy.

I integrated the sauce into the chili and then poured it into the crock pot that I was taking to work. The lunch room is where the competition would take place, and all of the crock pots were plugged in and turned on to get the chili hot (temperature-wise, at least). So after a couple of hours warming up on the low setting, I turned mine up to high to get it right where I wanted it. The cook-off organizers then would open the crock pots and serve the chili in the small cups. Only, when they opened my chili, it let off what I can only describe as a slightly weaker blast of pepper spray. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn't like getting doused in the face with pepper spray (because I’ve had that happen before, and it was slightly more powerful than this) but it was…uncomfortable to say the least.

An approximation of what opening my chili was like

Everyone who was in the room began to blink back tears. Some were coughing. I had single-handedly pepper sprayed my coworkers. There’s no way anyone is going to eat this, let alone vote for it. To my absolute shock and amazement though, people were lining up for mine. Seconds, thirds…until the pot was completely empty. People had runny noses, tears streaming down their red faces, and were saying how much it hurt, but how they couldn't get enough. I won the cook-off for a second straight year.

The third year was a lot less eventful- another turkey chili, no hot sauce mishaps, I remember there being more cheese and less heat. Nothing really story-worthy. I won it for the third and final time. My company no longer has chili cook-offs.

Yeah, not no more it ain't.
Somewhere along the way I got sidetracked from what I wanted to write this blog post about- the chili that I made for New Year’s. Being the end of December, it’s cold, dark, and generally gloomy outside, so a hearty chili is just the thing to warm you up (but not make you blind and unable to breathe comfortably). So as I said above, I typically would use turkey for my chili. It’s cheaper and better for you, but this time the Manager Markdown Meat Market (MMMM) there was a really nice, really small roast. It just was calling my name, and I knew it would make for some good chili.

Indeed it did.

Again, walking around both Kroger and Aldi, I picked up an onion, pinto beans, kidney beans, chili beans, black beans, diced tomato with jalapeno, Mexican style sliced tomato, whole-kernel corn and skinless Polska kielbasa. I ground up the meat and cooked it on the stovetop with some chili powder, then drained and combined it with the rest of the ingredients that I had simmering in a large pot. I should mention that with the exception of the chili beans and canned tomatoes, I drained all of the other cans of their liquid.


For those that don't know what an onion looks like
I simmered the chili for about a half hour under medium heat and tasted. It was missing...something. I added a few drops of liquid smoke, and 1/2 can of cheap beer. I also cut the kielbasa into small chunks and added it as well. Since it's cooked already, there's no need to pre-cook it.

Pouring one out for my homies

Now covered, I let the chili simmer for another hour, stirring occasionally. The end product was a smoky, hearty, spicy and filling meal. My wife chose to have hers on top of some pasta, while I opted for just sour cream and cheese. Either way, it makes for a heck of a meal, and tons (I mean TONS) of leftovers.
Detail right out of the pot
On top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese

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