With Independence Day rapidly approaching, I figured I would dedicate this week's blog post to the topic of grilling and cooking - complete with a couple of recipes and whatnot.
First, I've got this apple chipotle marinade that I started making a while back, and it's pretty delicious and easy to make. Put the meat (I usually go for a petite sirloin or steak tips for this - for a treat, go for the porterhouse) into a freezer bag and pour in some apple cider vinegar - just enough to sort of get it onto the surface of the meat and to get some liquid into the bag to mix the other stuff with - not enough to overwhelm the other flavors. Follow that with a single container of applesauce, a packet of chipotle seasoning, such as McCormick's, some black pepper, and a small quantity of apple pie spice. Sometimes I also add some Tabasco brand chipotle sauce. The apple cider vinegar acts as a tenderizer as well as adding its share of flavor, and instead of letting it just sit in the fridge the whole time, I'll go and mix the contents of the freezer bag around several times in several hours, basically just sort of squishing the sauce around to make sure it's all mixed well. After maybe four or five hours, you're ready for the grill.
That said, I'll grill at home fairly regularly but my favorite way to enjoy this recipe is over an open fire out at a campsite. My fiancee and I go camping several times a year and are now almost cooking 100% over the open fire when we do, doing the marinade in advance and using meats from one of the area's growing number of specialty butcher shops. Outdoor stores sell metal handheld racks that let you cook and turn meats just while sitting at the fire - although you definitely want to be patient and a little thorough. Corn on the cob placed in a very low fire until the husks begin to blacken is delicious. S'mores for dessert, of course. Even scrambled eggs, bacon and toast (the toaster still does that one better) get done over the open fire at breakfast time at our campsites.
That open fire stuff all kind of stems from a terrifying experience I had years ago with a Wal-Mart brand propane tank. Now I never, ever use the stuff. The thing, attached to a lamp at the time, caught fire and was sitting there like a giant hand grenade. I briefly considered throwing it into a nearby outhouse (would have loved to see video of that one), but did the smarter thing and ran up to inform the camp attendant. I directed my girlfriend at the time to get behind a large tree and to not look out from behind it under any circumstances. The attendant, a man in his mid-70s, casually grabbed a fire extinguisher, started up his golf cart and rolled down to the site, then just as casually, walked up to the flaming tank and gave it a good spray with a fire extinguisher. Thus concluded the worst bomb scare that tiny Maine town had probably ever seen.
The Chili Cookoff
In the spirit of this column, I'm also going to take the opportunity to share my own longtime chili recipe. I've always wanted to try this against the master chili cooks at the big annual event in Terlingua, Texas, but that seems to be more of an industrial-scale enterprise. I did however enter this chili into a local chili cookoff somewhere in this little New Hampshire college town when I lived in those parts - and little did I know, that chili cookoff was sort of a wacky microcosm of small town rural life.
The local business community put on the cookoff every year as a sort of booster event and there was one businessman who had the trophy in his store window on Main Street year after year. I looked forward to trying his esteemed chili, making my way through some pretty good entries as well as the obligatory novelty entries such as Hawaiian (pineapple) chili. And then I came to his table. Good God. I was handed a little cup of what was essentially a ground pork soup with a couple of flecks of some unidentified green spice in it. Swallowing the first bite was one of the mightiest acts of endurance I have ever committed. There would be no second bite. After all, I am just a mere human. And yet, this was the winning chili for the fourth or fifth year in a row. Essentially, it wasn't a chili cookoff at all. It was just a handful of local business owners throwing this annual event that basically amounted to re-crowning their club's leader. There was a lesson in there somewhere that day. Even this young man next to me, who had one of the best chilis there, found that the attendees were pretty much just interested in the fact that his parents owned the restaurant across the street.
To most of those folks on hand, chili was pretty much just a word to describe the New Hampshire weather in March. My own chili was billed as "kung fu chili," because "it had a kick." "Well, I don't want that," one local woman sniffed and walked away. Around that point I knew if I didn't move back to the Boston area very soon I was going to lose my mind.
I did fairly well with votes in the cookoff. I remember actually feeling quite honored when this one little seven year old girl walked up to my table and very solemnly dropped her voting chip into the cup. However, as noted before, it wasn't a real chili cookoff. It was just a strange exercise in unofficially re-coronating the leader of some local business organization.
But anyhow, the reason I came up with my own chili recipe years ago was that I had never found a chili I liked, but knew that among the ingredients, there was really nothing not to like. So over the course of years, this is what I came up with: (Remember, drain all possible fat from the meat before placing it into the chili pot)
Bill's Chili Recipe
1 London Broil Steak
1 pound ground beef
1 or 2 chopped tomatoes
2 large cans of tomato sauce (plus one or two small backup cans)
1 large can of each of the following: black beans, small red kidney beans, large red kidney beans
2 packets of hot chili seasoning, McCormick or whatever
1 can jalapenos (or some fresh hot peppers)
1/2 bottle of rich-flavored beer
Red Chili Pepper (hot preferred)
garlic powder (use this one least, if at all)
At least one other variety of chili pepper powder, such as ancho, chipotle, etc - be careful if using cayenne because that can really kick up what is already going to be a fairly hot chili.
Cook the London Broil to medium (to keep the meat tender), then trim and cut into small pieces. While the steak is cooking, drop the beans and tomato sauce into a large pot with a cover. Drain off the meat very thoroughly before adding to the pan. A good way to ruin chili is to have it so that little layer of oil appears on top at any time.
Add steak and browned ground beef to the pot. Turn on a medium heat. Add chili seasoning packets (or just more of the other above mentioned spices), then 2-3 generous squirts of lime juice. Stir thoroughly.
After stirring, start adding the seasonings - cumin, chili pepper, black pepper, whatever else you want and in whatever amount you like. I usually use heavy amounts of cumin and chili pepper while cooking, and will only use a small amount of garlic and onion powder once during the process.
Add the jalapenos and tomatoes to the chili, let the pot simmer for 20-30 minutes. Be careful the heat is not too high - if it's bubbling a lot, turn down the heat. Stir the chili several times during this period, and then, add more spices to taste. (This usually comes out pretty hot)
Add half a bottle of beer (I usually use Blue Moon or Stella Artois) to the mix and stir well. Allow to simmer some more, 10 min or so. Another little squirt of lime juice probably won't hurt, but don't overdo that.
If the chili is not red and saucy enough, at this point you would want to drop in one of the small backup cans of tomato sauce and stir well. Careful not to have too much in there though.
If you like the chili very spicy, you may also want to consider adding a bit more spice to the mix, and then stirring some more, before stopping. Spice tends to lose some flavor during cooking, which is why you add it several times. Stir regularly to make sure the mix doesn't get too dry or overcooked. If it looks too dry or thick, a splash of water should help.
The covered chili usually simmers on a low to medium heat for a couple of hours or so (stir regularly) before it is ready and you'll definitely have enough for company. When the whole house just smells great, chances are it's done.
Serve with side things like tortilla chips, corn bread, sour cream, shredded cheese, and scallions.
The Good, The Bad, The Purple
With that, I've worked at some restaurants in the past, including at the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks, and really enjoy hot and spicy food. So I'm prone to just making up some recipes, especially sauces, as I go along. Having recently acquired a food dehydrator, the creative potential is higher than ever. However, let me point out that all of us eventually encounter our culinary "Bridge Too Far."
In my case, it was grape beef jerky.
That's right. The first batch of beef jerky was great, and used the previously mentioned apple chipotle marinade as the flavoring. Emboldened by that success, I set out on an ill-advised mission of alchemy. I took the thin slices of petite sirloin and put them, raw, into a freezer bag and proceeded to pour in: Grape juice, black pepper, Sichuan pepper, and for good measure, several generous scoops of grape jelly. I mashed it all together into the bag and let it sit in the fridge for six hours. After cooking it and placing the meat in the dehydrator, I brushed a mix of grape juice and grape jelly onto it at several times, turning it as well.
When it was done, it was... interesting. And as a writer I hate using that word in that context because nobody ever means what they say when they use it that way. It's usually more of a nasally-toned tool of attempted condescension about something a person doesn't understand or can't relate to.
The jerky started off very grape-y, and ended very beef-y. Perhaps worst of all, it was a dark purple color. If anything, I can send my recipe to exobiologists at NASA so they can use it to help train astronauts for the possibility that at some point, they may have no choice but to eat an alien life form to survive somewhere.
It wasn't absolutely horrible, but again, it was a culinary Bridge Too Far. Still, those bridges too far are how we achieve greatness sometimes. If you're not going to try and fail once in a while, your odds of trying and succeeding become that much more diminished.
With that, I hope you enjoy your Independence Day, whether you're camping, grilling, or whatever you might have planned. And if and when you come to a bridge that's a little too far, just take a few steps out onto it and see what happens.