Chili con Carne

I did something heinous to my back about a week and a half ago, one of those things where you lean forward and when you straighten back up, you want to die, so I spent about a week lying very still and thinking gloomy thoughts about my mortality and the effects of aging on the skeletal system. In the process of all of this mulling, I came to a realization that while I am not a “world-beater” personality, I really hate being unproductive, so while I’m doing much better but not quite 100%, I’m happy to be back on my feet to potter around the house and making occasional short trips down to the river. Today I took advantage of my forced indolence to make one of my favorite winter meals for this weekend – chili con carne.

It’s probably a good idea for me to define my terms here before I get into the particulars of how I make this. Chili is one of those things that inflame the passions of purists and sticklers who claim that adding anything besides meat and chiles is heretical. I read a comment online recently where someone said of a vegetarian chili recipe that “you can call it a spicy bean soup, but don’t call it true chili”. But as I am no such food fundamentalist,  I unashamedly adulterate “true” chili con carne by adding beans and tomatoes because I like it that way. I like a rich, spicy, thick, beefy chili, with creamy beans and a little tomato to brighten and sweeten the sauce.

But really, chili con carne is all about the chiles. When we lived in California and I was growing and drying a variety of chiles in our garden, I began to appreciate their nuanced flavors and the ability to combine them into a “custom” chile powder. I love their earthy, spicy, berry fragrance when I open the container where all my chiles are stored.  The Mexican supermarkets in Concord had bins filled with ancho, New Mexico, cayenne, California, and guajillo chiles. It is these chiles that are the basis for a lot of Mexican salsas and sauces, like red enchilada sauce, and they are the flavor basis for chili con carne.

This link has a good guide for chile varieties, including substitutions and heat levels

For my chili powder, I use a mixture of ancho (which is dried poblano), serrano, California or New Mexico chiles, and a chipotle (dried smoked jalapeño) that I grind myself. The serranos add some heat, but the other two are just earthy, rich and should have a nice dried berry smell. Chipotle adds a bit of heat and a deep smoky flavor. If you don’t want to grind your own powder, I still encourage you to try to blend a couple of different good, freshly ground chiles rather than using the standard chili powder. If you think about chiles as berries, think about the difference between dried cherries and dried blueberries. They each bring something unique to the flavor of the dish, which you can control to your taste when you make your own blend. Penzeys is a good online source and they carry ground ancho and chipotle.

Another of my chili quirks is that I buy a whole chuck roast and mince it myself with my biggest, sharpest knife. It is usually hard to find “chili grind” beef and I prefer the texture of tender little chunks of beef. The regular hamburger grind seems to either disappear into the sauce or else stay a little rubbery. I just like the control that chopping it myself gives me since it also allows me to trim out gristly bits and big chunks of fat. This step is totally optional – you’ll still have a great bowl of chili without hand-chopping the meat, but try it at least once and see what you think.

The ingredients, in order of use-

-1.5 lbs ground or minced beef chuck

– oil to cook the onions

– 2 chopped medium onions

– 5 or 6 cloves minced garlic

– pinch of salt

– 6 Tablespoons chile powder

(about 6 ancho, 3 California, 3 serrano, and 1 chipotle)

– 2 teaspoons ground cumin

– 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano or a pinch of Italian oregano

– 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes

If you use whole dried chiles to make your own chile powder as do I, turn on the oven to about 350°. Put all of your chiles into a cast iron skillet or sheet pan and toast for about 5 minutes until they become very fragrant, then take them out and give them a couple of minutes to cool off enough to handle. Tear the stem ends off the chiles, shake out all of the seeds, and tear them into pieces. Grind the chiles into a powder in a small coffee grinder.

Brown the meat in batches over high heat and then remove from the pot and set aside. Add a little oil to the pot and sauté the onions. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt and use the water that they release to scrape up the sticky brown bits that the meat has left in the bottom of the pot. Once the onion has begun to soften, stir in the minced garlic and cook over medium to low heat. When the onions and garlic have softened, stir the chili powder and other spices and stir until the onions are coated with chile powder. There should be enough oil for it to get moist and toast/fry the chili powder and spices.

Add the meat and any accumulated juices back into the pot. Then add:

-3 or 4 cups cooked pink beans or small red beans. If you cook dried beans for the chili, use the cooking liquid in the chili. If you prefer to use canned beans, drain them and use a little extra water instead.

-1  28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, with the juice

-2 bay leaves

– Add water, chicken or beef broth, just to make it loose, not soupy, about 3 cups

Cover with the pot lid, leaving just a crack, and let it burble quietly over low heat for an hour or so, until the meat is tender.  Longer is fine, but keep the heat low and enough liquid in the pot so it doesn’t stick and  scorch on the bottom. The acid in the tomatoes will keep the beans from softening much more than they are, so a long simmer shouldn’t hurt them.

Taste for salt, maybe add a dash cayenne if you want it spicier. It’s better to make it a day ahead of time, say on a Saturday before a big football game or something like that.

I usually serve it with a sprinkle raw chopped onions on top and of course, it’s great with cornbread!


Country Fried Steak- Southern Food Challenge 3

I never said this was going to be pretty. There are no glamour shots in this post. It is impossible to make country fried steak look like anything but a big plate of brown. While country fried steak is doubtless very tasty, a feast for the eyes it is not. I think that may be a significant part of why country fried steak has never been in heavy rotation in my kitchen. (That and the “country”, “fried”, and  “steak” parts.) My gene pool is neck-deep in artists so I’m practically genetically hardwired to “first, eat with your eyes.”



Growing up, I don’t actually remember ever eating country fried steak. After I got married, I started making it occasionally, because despite the fact that he introduced me to kimchi and tom yum soup and sushi and cioppino, I married a guy who occasionally craves things his mother or grandmother cooked. His culinary guilty pleasures tend to contain trans-fats. His mom could give Paula Deen a run for her money in butter usage; she makes a mean tuna noodle casserole; she sometimes country-fries things; She’s not afraid of Crisco. So for love, I learned to fry. Sometimes.

When I started looking for actual recipes for country fried steak, I discovered that there  are a couple of significant variations: I have always dredged, pan-fried and then covered and cooked the meat in a sort of self-made brown gravy. A lot of recipes almost deep fry the meat, then make a cream or milk gravy separately and  pour it over the top when it is served, very much like a weiner schnitzel. It’s interesting then that that version has its roots in Texas with its significant influx of German immigrants in the early 19th century.

There is also some variation in the name: is it “country-fried” or “chicken-fried”? None less than John T. Edge of  Southern Foodways Alliance weighed in in the NY Times Diner’s Journal saying that “Country fried steak is, usually, battered and fried beef, smothered in gravy and simmered until solid crust and liquid gravy fuse. It’s a pan-Southern dish.”

Anyway, getting back to the issue of aesthetics: I used red onions. It was the best I could do.


Country Fried Steak

a general outline

Tenderized beef round steaks, about 1 per person

1 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned (to taste) with

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon paprika

pinch of cayenne

1 large onion, thinly sliced

Oil for frying

Milk , about a cup to dredge the meat and 1/2 cup for the gravy

water or broth to surround but not cover the meat

dash Worchestershire sauce



In a heavy skillet, slowly saute’ the sliced onions in about 1 tablespoon of the oil until they are a sweet softly wilted tangle. Remove from the  pan and hold for later.

Meanwhile, dip each piece of meat into the milk, then dredge it in the seasoned flour. Cover the meat completely, but dust off any extra that isn’t well adhered. As each piece is covered, set it aside on a plate for 10 minutes or so before frying them. The flour will begin to absorb the milk and juice from the meat and will get a bit of a crust.

Once the onions are cooked and the meat is all dredged, add a couple more tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat it until it shimmers slightly. Lay the meat in the pan and fry until both sides are golden brown. Scatter the onions back over the pan, pour in the 1/2 cup of milk, enough water or broth to surround but not cover the meat, and that splash of Worchestershire sauce. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pan with a heavy lid and keep the heat on low for about 15 minutes until the meat is very tender and the gravy has thickened.



There was sort of that hot kettle screeching whistling sound in my ears when the 375° metal ring slipped down over my wrist and dangled there. I had just opened the oven and slid my  apple tart onto the silicone square potholder I was holding, not realizing that I had just missed the edges of the tart tin until the fluted ring of the tart pan slipped away from the bottom and down over my arm like a bracelet from hell.

It felt like it took me MINUTES to decide what to do- it was difficult to focus with half of my brain screaming shrilly at me that it hurthurthurthurt and the other half reasoning very calmly and reasonably that flesh would heal whereas pie would not and it had taken a lot of time and effort to bake it and would require a lot of miles of walking around in very cold weather to reassemble the ingredients in order to make another one…..

I really should have just dropped the damn pie. At the point that I realized I was going to have to turn around and walk past the refrigerator to the rolling cart on the other side of the kitchen from the oven with the hot metal ring dangling from my wrist in order to have a place to put the thing down intact, I should have just dumped it there on the floor.


But no, I sacrificed my body to save the tart. It’s a disgusting, livid second-degree burn with a blister about the size of a quarter and about a 2×2 area of reddened skin. It is shaped rather like a human heart, with the arteries running around the sides of my wrist. It looks gross. I’m keeping it covered in Neosporin and gauze which is a pain to apply to the right hand using only the left hand. Showering is difficult and involves plastic-wrapping my arm to keep the hot water off.  Most activities involving my right hand are more difficult. I probably look like I tried unsuccessfully to slit my wrist. I’m pretty sure I made the wrong decision about the tart. I do feel like a bit of an idiot.


You spin me right round

One year ago today, I was sitting on my bed in the Hotel Panorama in Hong Kong with my laptop and a large fortifying cup of coffee, writing about congee. That was my very first post here on Cognitive Leeks. I remember feeling  my heart beat quicken as I was hitting that “Publish” button for the first time, taking the plunge, putting my story out there, wondering what was next.


And so the earth has spun round the sun once more, and I’m back here  at January 18 again. This year, I’m at a friend’s house near Atlanta, sitting on a bed with my laptop and coffee (naturally)  on a rainy morning. It seems like more than just the earth has spun round this year.   Scott is back in Hong Kong right now, and I’m in Georgia living the life of a gypsy and vagabond while he’s gone, living out of suitcases and trying to avoid New Jersey in January, although it seems like I may have brought it here with me. It’s been a restless, unsettled year with trips and relocations. The shape and texture of my daily life has been radically altered in this year, upended like a box of Lego’s onto the floor;  I’m still trying to figure out how to sort all of the jumbled pieces out. I’m in a season in which my relationship to food and cooking, once a balm and anodyne, have become strained and challenging. I’ve washed a lot of tears down my kitchen sink during this last trip around the sun.


Something interesting about this full circle theme though: I’m back in Atlanta right now, where I grew up. I’ve been visiting my familiar spots, favorite markets, driving past the first places where I had Indian and  sushi and Thai, the restaurant where I had my first beer (a Moretti at Camille’s in Va. Highland). Pano’s and Paul’s has moved from W. Paces Ferry, but I had my first really fancy restaurant dinner there when I was 20. I wore a new black dress, loved the escargot. I happened to go by Sevenanda in Little Five Points, the hippie market where we got our bulk lentils and brown rice out of pails on the floor, and alfalfa seeds and fresh peanut butter and carob chips when I was little. I know if I walked inside today, the smell would take me back to being five, thinking I was the only child in Atlanta eating plain yogurt and mung bean sprouts. I went to the Sweet Auburn Market downtown, the first place I remember seeing tripe and pigs feet and chitterlings.


I’ve also been to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market a couple of times. We would make a weekly trip up there for most of our groceries. It’s one of my favorite places. It has always been a very international store, even when it was basically a grungy warehouse full of tow motors carrying pallets of bananas and sacks of rice.  The store was always  full of Indian ladies in brilliant saris and gold bangles and nose rings,  all of the beautiful voices of Africa there on a given Sunday. It’s a bit like heaven in that “every tribe and tongue and nation” could probably find something familiar to eat there.   There are still the tubs of spices I remember that smell like faraway places,  fruits with skins that looks like dinosaurs, live blue crabs and tanks of fish. As many places as I’ve been now, I still find mysterious green leafy things there, intriguing and begging to be investigated. I know that this place is where the seeds were planted that became my interest in food and travel, that quickening of the mind that started me on the chase. I never really lose that fascination I first realized there for the fellowship that all of humanity finds in the breaking of bread, all of us different and all of us the same.

That unfinished story beguiles me back to the table again and again. And that’s the thing about this little rock full of people hurtling around the sun- it doesn’t stop, the stories don’t stop, we don’t get a chance to catch our breath. We keep sleeping and eating and drinking and loving and crying and working and playing, round and round. Where will I be this time next year? Where will I have visited, what will I have smelled, tasted, cooked? I can’t even imagine, but I hope to still be writing about it all when next year rolls around.  Thank you all for riding along with me this year.

About that saddle…..


When I so blithely announced that I was “back in the saddle,” I hadn’t realized yet that they use an English saddle here rather than the Western saddle to which I have become accustomed. There’s no pommel on an English saddle, so I’ve been falling off quite a bit… which I mean, I’m using a gas stove rather than an electric. I really like the gas stove, and I’ve already been charring red bell peppers over the flames and flame-broiling toast and mackerel under the broiler. But it performs very differently than the electric range I’ve been cooking with for ten years, sort of automatic vs. stick shift ; so for every lovely pork roast or chicken emerging burnished and toothsome from the oven, there is a charred and crusted rice pot and a grimly overcooked pan-fried flounder supper that will remain forever my secret shame (and as a lingering odor in my apartment, if not forever, then at least for a long time). That is one fierce little hob! I’m not accustomed to the heat that a gas hob emits and the speed with which things come to a boil, then boil over and then, inevitably, burn.


When the contractor finally deigned to make an appearance last week to hang the doors on The Beast in the kitchen, he blustered in saying “it took us so long to get the doors because they have to be perfect” and then left a fellow named Delfino to do the work, ostentatiously instructing him not to make any mess, do a good job, make sure she’s happy, etc. I had to restrain myself from poking him in the forehead with my index finger to see if I could puncture that bloated sense of self-important swagger. Unsurprisingly, the doors and frame that were so long-awaited for their perfection were only 2/3 the height of the space they were meant to cover, so I made an executive decision to ditch the doors and just finish all of the raw wood with trim and then cover the bottom with some kind of curtain. We fabricated a bullnose edge for the counter-height shelf out of two pieces of quarter-round and a flat piece of trim which were glued, nailed and screwed together and then caulked all of the seams.



I’ve painted it with a couple more coats of white paint. So, it’s not what it once was, but it’s the best that Delfino and I could do with a tiny saw blade, a utility knife, a caulk gun, and my expertise. And it’s miles better than the brown horror that was there when we moved in.


Waiting for the paint to dry, I took a break from construction and unpacking and caught  a bus ride  through the Lincoln Tunnel into the NY Port Authority terminal, then walked across on 42nd street to Grand Central Station to visit Penzey’s Spices. My sister’s recent post about stocking her spice rack in Vietnam reminded me that Penzey’s carries Vietnamese Cinnamon (Extra Fancy) which I had heard tastes like my Favorite Candy Ever, Atomic Fireballs. The very knowledgeable and helpful counter staff allowed me to smell jar after jar of  cassias and cinnamons for comparison. I ended up with a big jar of spicy Vietnamese cinnamon, a small jar of French thyme, and a bag each of dry mustard and Malaysian Sarawak white peppercorns.



Swag in hand, I wandered back through the beautiful Grand Central Station, which, if you can walk through and not want to take a train trip with a steamer trunk, I’m shocked and appalled, then meandered back across Midtown. I watched Bryant Park’s transformation from summer to winter- wear (they were installing the ice skating rink and little glass holiday shops) while eating a very drippy and delicious gyro (by the way, why does everyone say Jeye-row here?) and shooing away the pigeons. It was a pretty ideal (for me) shopping trip into Manhattan.


It’s beginning to feel nippy here, and the tops of the trees outside my window are getting a little rusty looking. Fall is establishing a firm bulkhead here and I’m hoping I can figure out the foibles of my new kitchen in time to do some cool-weather cooking. I guess the thing about getting back in the saddle is that you might have to do it a few times before you can actually get some forward momentum going.

A step in the right direction

After lots of chop-busting, whip-cracking and general unpleasant behavior toward the gentlemen in the construction trades on my part, we’re 5 or 6 coats of white paint in- it’s an improvement. There is a rumor that trim and doors will be added to the lower half (and as always, under my gimlet-eyed supervision) in the immediate future …..

There may end up being 5 or 6 more coats of paint, since using a primer would have been doing it

right in the first place, and that is, clearly, not how they roll here.

Before and After

I just walked in the door from a lightening-fast stealth mission to the coffee shop around the corner and the bakery across the street for a fortifying large coffee and a couple of almond biscotti. I was worried I’d get locked out while I was gone (more on that later) despite my clever use of cardboard in the lock on the front door, but I’m up the stairs and in again. We’re in our new apartment but I haven’t been able to unpack anything like a coffee maker in the kitchen yet. Or walk on the floor without having to wash my feet off.

We started moving our things over from the furnished apartment Tuesday night to be ready for our truck and movers to arrive early Wednesday morning. When we signed the lease for this place, the kitchen looked like this:

I loved the tin ceiling and the tall window and especially the built-in cupboard. It reminded me of my Granny’s house. I envisioned my cookbooks and my sky-blue Kitchenaid mixer on the shelves, maybe my apple-green soup pot and some  big glass jars of beans. I was told the kitchen was going to be renovated to look like the one downstairs, where a wall of counter-tops and shelves were added on the opposite wall and the floor was a black and white checkerboard. We asked if we could talk to the owner about getting a slightly bigger fridge since we noticed that the kitchen downstairs had a flash water heater which gave a little  more room between the counter and the stove by the window. So imagine my surprise when I walked in Tuesday evening to find this:

I feel like there was a cupcake in the kitchen and someone came in and swapped it out for a big steamy cow pie. It’s even worse up close, just bad, bad work. There was no sink and no countertop or backsplash when we got the keys Tuesday. The workers came in Wednesday and sawed and tiled in the kitchen while our furniture was being moved in, did a very cursory sweep- up of the dust, and left. All of the work in the kitchen is the shoddiest and sloppiest I have ever seen, the tiles trickling downhill behind the fridge, uneven cuts, paint and grout everywhere. The cupboard was ripped apart and had unsanded, unfinished plywood sloppily shoved in and haphazardly smeared with a eye-watering oil- based stain. I’m not sure what to do about it yet, so I’ve been concentrating on getting the floors in the rest of the apartment clean of the paint and grout the workers left behind and making the living room and bedroom  habitable. I’m not sure how to handle this. We’ll see what the owner says when Scott gets home, which brings me back around to the stealth visit to the closest purveyor of caffeinated deliciousness from which I can make a round trip in 5 minutes or less.

When Scott left for a short over night trip at 5 AM the morning after we moved in, he accidentally grabbed my apartment keys and took both sets with him. So, in order to go out I have to leave my door unlocked and risk one of the neighbors closing the common street door before I get back, locking me out of the building. I sneaked out for coffee yesterday morning, but last night, after spending all day scrubbing the floors (my knees are killing me today) and shifting boxes around, I wanted nothing more than a shower and a glass of wine. Hot shower- done. Clean clothes and socks- done and done. Now for the wine and a corkscrew……hmmmm. I have about 35 boxes labelled “k-ware/glass” or “k-ware/china” with thousands of heavily paper-wrapped small lumpy objects inside. Possibly millions.Trying to find that particular needle in this haystack is an exercise in futility.

I grabbed the bottle, ran downstairs, propped the door open, and went across the street to a BYOB pizza place and told them I had just moved in, can’t find a corkscrew, would they kindly open it for me? Perhaps they saw the desperate look in my eye, or maybe they are just nice folks, but they said “Sure!” and opened it and I was able to slip back into the building before anyone came out and shut the door. Now for a glass. I realize that you technically don’t NEED a glass, and I probably had a water bottle or something around that I could have drunk from, but I just wanted to sit down and drink from a proper wine glass and feel like a civilized person. So, with a fanatical gleam in my eyes, I girded my loins, got out my step-ladder and my utility knife and spent the better part of an hour rummaging through the aforementioned multitudes of boxes (what in the world can THAT shape be? did these lumps have baby lumps while they were in storage?!?) where  I ran across my coffee cup, some kitchen towels, a random handful of flatware, a million weird shaped lumps, and (cue choirs of angels and a spotlight from the heavens) a box of wineglasses!!!

It’s the little things really- the spots of paint all over the floor, the set of keys that leave one housebound, the corner cupboard that was loved and lost- that can push my endurance. And it’s the little things, like a wineglass and a clean pair of socks, that can remind me that I’m still me, even though I’m way over here in New Jersey in this utterly challenging period in my life with no idea what to do about that stinkin’ kitchen.

What I brought

When I knew that we would be living in a furnished temporary apartment for two months with a “fully equipped” kitchen, I suspected rightly that the kitchen would only be considered fully equipped by someone who ate in restaurants exclusively, with perhaps an occasional “home-cooked” bowl of cereal. I started a mental list of things I used most often and then pared that list down to the most easily transportable basics. Here is what I brought:

-3 knives, a small paring knife, 1- 8 inch chefs knife and my slicer.

-my little emergency knife sharpening doohicky (because a dull knife is worse than no knife)

-a bamboo stirrer

-tongs ( my second pair of hands)

-pepper mill

-one-cup-at-a-time drip coffee maker and filters (and the last of my Peet’s Sumatra)

-Sherry and Champagne vinegar and olive oil- these were last-minute additions because the packers didn’t think they would make it intact in the truck, but I’ve  used them a lot anyway, so I’m glad they came along with us.

Once we got to the apartment and my worst fears about the kitchen equipment were realized (this cookware is the reason “heavy-bottomed pots” are specified- I feel like I am cooking in big Coke cans), I started another mental list of things I wish I had brought:

-a flexible plastic cutting board as we’ve been provided a 3-legged glass cutting board (yes, I know that you don’t cut on glass)

-my saute’ pan, probably my most versatile and oft-used piece of cookware

-a small cheese grater- because believe me, you only grate an entire block of cheese with a fork once before thinking “that little cheese grater wouldn’t have taken up that much space in the car.”

-my jar of good paprika, because you can do a lot to meat, pork and chicken with salt, pepper, and paprika.

and finally

-a silicone spatula for making omelets and general stirring of things like pimento cheese

I tend to keep my kitchen tools pretty well-edited to things I actually use regularly; I’m not a big gadget collector. But it has been interesting to see that I can function reasonably well with a really basic handful of tools and what things I miss most when they are unavailable to me.

One thing they do have here that I don’t have in my own kitchen is a microwave oven. I’ve been making microwave popcorn just because I can. But I’ll be happy to give up the microwave popcorn to cook in my own kitchen again. I’ll be looking at apartments today, hoping to find a kitchen that I can settle happily into very soon.