The one thing even long term readers might not know about me is that 1) I do all the cooking and 2) am quite good at it (if I do say so myself). (And I do.) I am not, however, good with following recipes or remembering how I improvise on them. In order to preserve how I prepared meals worth making again, I'm going to share them with you. They're largely variations on recipes from the only cookbook that's also an education: The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute of America. It weighs in at 7.8 lbs. and is every bit the beast an almost eight-pound book should be. In it you learn what equipment to buy (one good chef's knife can replace an assortment of space-cluttering gadgets); how to use that equipment in the most effective way possible (the time people spend cooking can be cut in half by the knowledge of how to cut an onion); how particular flavors are produced (both in terms of spicing and preparing dishes); how certain textures are achieved (especially important in soups and with meats); and I could go on but you see my point: this is the book to purchase should you want to learn how to cook. I'm going share recipes in its spirit: not only will I tell you what to do, I'll also explain why I'm doing it.
Chorizo Cilantro Chili
Mexican (pork) chorizo (or substitute with soy chorizo)
Unripe (green) serrano chilis (for back heat)
Ripe (green) jalapeño peppers (for front heat)
Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (for round heat)
Gebhardt's Chili Powder
2 bunches of cilantro
1 bunch of green onions
2 medium yellow (or 1 large Vidalia) onions
4 cloves of garlic
8 Roma tomatoes
3 cans of pinto beans (12 oz.)
3 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
Prelude: A word about those peppers.
I didn't specify how many you'll need because that depends on what kind of heat you desire. If you prefer your tongue and the roof of your mouth on fire immediately, go heavier on the jalapeño peppers because they have front heat. Front heat also overwhelms all the other flavors in a dish, meaning a bottle of quality hot sauce can make mediocre food edible or mask an off-note in what would otherwise be a ruined dish. (I like Cholula. The pequin [30,000 to 60,000 Scoville units] and arbol [15,000 to 30,000 Scoville units] chili combination provides pure flavor-masking front heat.)
If you want to taste the flavor of your ingredients before you taste and feel the heat, go heavier on the back heat-providing serrano peppers. One word of caution when producing back heat: when you taste the progress of your dish, you need to taste a little more than you normally would to fully register the back heat. If you fail to feel its full effect, you can easily produce a dish that tastes wonderful in your mouth but burns holes through your throat and stomach.
I designate chipotle peppers as "round heat" because they are, in fact, jalapeño peppers that have been smoked and packaged in adobo sauce. They provide a sweet initial warmth before leavening into a surprising back heat. If you're not accustomed to working with fire, I recommend starting with one chipotle pepper, because unlike jalapeño and serrano peppers (which need to be sweated), you can add chipotle peppers and adobo sauce after the initial sweating of the vegetables. Before we do that, though, we need to cook the chorizo.
Step One: Cook the chorizo
Because chorizo contains so much fat, there is no need to oil the pot before cooking it. (I cook this all in this hard anodized sauce pot because the non-stick surface means I need less fat to sweat the vegetables.) Just squeeze the chorizo from the tube and cook it over medium heat until it has released some of its fat content and has the consistency of slightly runny scrambled eggs. Then remove the chorizo from the pan and set it aside, but leave the fat in the pan because we will be using it to sweat the vegetables. (If you opt for soy chorizo, you'll need to add a little olive oil to the pan after you cook it.)
Step Two: Sweating vegetables (onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, green onions, cilantro)
Sweating vegetables is like sauteing them, only the point isn't to brown them but get them to release their juices. They will do this more quickly if you apply a dash of salt to them in the pot. (The salt helps break down the vegetable cell walls.) You will be cooking this at medium heat.
- Dice the yellow onions and coarsely slice the first three inches of the green ones (cutting thin small strips from the root bulb up). You want to aim for a medium dice so the yellow onions are recognizable when the chili is served. Add the all the onions into the pot in which you cooked the chorizo and add some salt. Because there isn't much fat in the pot, you want to work the onions around until they're coated in the chorizo fat. Stir occasionally to avoid browning. Set the remaining green stalks of the green onion aside for later.
- Mince the garlic and your peppers. You want to mince them finely to distribute their flavor so as to avoid having someone bite into a chunk of unadulterated heat. Add them to the pan with the onions and let them cook for about a minute. Taste the mixture to determine whether you achieved the desired level of heat. I prefer back heat because it allows you to taste the other ingredients before it hits you. So I use 1 jalapeño pepper, 2 serrano peppers and 1 chipotle pepper. I opt to do the heat test here because because if you screw it up early, you can toss the mixture without having wasted too much time or money.
- Roughly dice six tomatoes and add them to the pot. Add another pinch of salt to help release the liquid from the tomatoes and stir. Your ingredients should reduce to the consistently of a thick salsa.
- Last but not least: coarsely mince one entire bunch of cilantro. I like to use the stems and the leaves because the stems are flavorful and they remain crunchy and I like a little crunch in my chili. Throw it in the pot and stir it around for about a minute. Now begins the boring stuff.
Step Three: The boring stuff
I call this the boring stuff because it involves adding stuff the to pot and letting it sit.
- Add the beans to the mixture and stir them in.
- Add two cups of stock (chicken or vegetable) and about a tablespoon of molasses. Stir it around and then give it a minute. The molasses will initially provide a bitter taste before mellowing into something more semi-sweet. In order to prevent that bitterness from being overwhelming, cut it with one tablespoon of brown sugar. (Which is sweeter than molasses but also has that slightly burnt taste.) If you so desire (and I usually do), you can add some of the adobo sauce into the mix here too.
- Add a teaspoon of Gebhardt's Chili Powder. (I like Gebhardt's because it provides a lot of depth but very little heat, so any mistakes can be corrected with a few drops of honey. [Did I mention that honey cuts heat? Because it does.] Now where was I?) Stir it in.
- Reintroduce the chorizo into the pot from whence it came. Stir and reduce the heat from medium to low. You are now playing the wait-and-tweak game. You can continue to tweak the flavor using the Gebhardt's, adobo sauce, lime juice, molasses, brown sugar, salt or chicken stock. Just be sure you thoroughly mix the chili and let it settle before tasting it.
- Cover and let the mixture reduce until it reaches your optimal chili consistency. (I like mine a little soupier than most, which translates into about an hour of reduction.) Now on to the optional stuff.
Step Four: Prepare the (optional) late additions and the garnishes
Remember those greens onions and two tomatoes you set aside? They go in about five minutes before you serve the chili to provide little bursts of freshness to your chili.
- Slice the onions into small strips. Place half into the chili and half in a little bowl for garnish.
- Dice the tomatoes and place one into the chili and the other aside for garnish.
- Coarsely mince the leaves of the other cilantro bunch and set them aside for garnish.
Step Five: Eat some chili
Serve it in bowls alongside the garnishes and a little cheese of your choice. I like a cheddar-type one like queso menonita, but some people prefer the creamier, more mozzarella consistency of Oaxaca. Apologize to anyone who thinks cilantro tastes like soap because they will not like your chili.