April 29, 2012

Cincinnati Chili

I've never been to Cincinnati. My only points of reference for the city, I confess, are watching WKRP on tv and Cincinnati Chili (only the former of which I've experienced first hand). So, as you can see, this will be a bold adventure down chili avenue, and at the end I won't really know whether I've succeeded or not in creating an at-home version of "Cincy/Cinci Chili"; all I'll know is if I've made a tasty dinner. To be fair, that's usually my primary goal, so I'm not too worried about it.

My interest in Cincinnati Chili is based on two things: a deep appreciation of American regional cuisine, which I explore whenever possible, and a recollection of a pastitsio I once ate in Mykonos, which contains a similar combination of pasta, meat and spices, albeit without the cheddar cheese, kidney beans, or oyster crackers. I loved that dish so much, that I've tried to make a version of it before.

Ah, oyster crackers. You can't really get them here, I've discovered (unless you have an account with Sysco Restaurant suppliers, I suppose), so unless I want to visit one of the local oyster bars and clandestinely make off with a packet (or, you know, ask them nicely for an extra packet) I'm forced to either a) make my own from the dubious recipes floating around the internet (not happening today!), b) substitute soda crackers/saltines, despite numerous websites cautioning me against doing so, or c) use the also-dubious looking oyster crackers available from Carr's in the entertainment 9-variety pack.

I've opted for c) and the scant offering of suspiciously flat oyster crackers it is. For the purists, I apologize that I'm not easily able to meet the simple standard, but perhaps I can gain a little credit for not just using goldfish crackers?

My starting point was this recipe from Allrecipes, which is claimed (by a commenter, not the original poster) to be the very recipe for Skyline Chili as was posted in the newspaper in the 1970s. It seemed like a pretty good place to start. Yes, I did my reading, and understand that Empress is widely recognized as the first cincinnati chili, but at the end of the day, after all the reading, I couldn't find a version of that one available. Skyline seemed just the thing. When I eventually make it to Cincinnati, I will have to taste test Skyline, Empress, and Gold Star, just to truly understand the differences. I read a lot of recipes, and a lot of comments, and am impressed by how passionately Cincinnati folks love their chili. Food that is subject to hotly debated opinion, contested between strangers and friends alike in the quest for the perfect representative version, is always worth investigating.

I halved it, because I wasn't feeding 10 people, and I have finite freezer space, so I hope that doesn't compromise the flavours and/or textures. I also found it necessary to substitute dark cocoa powder for the chocolate (not going to the store again today), and upped the cinnamon. I use an unsalted tomato sauce, so this will likely be a bit less salty than other, more accurate versions.

So, the only remaining question was...one-way, two-way, three-way, four-way, or five-way? Which, of course, isn't a question at all; five-way, hands down. For those completely unfamiliar with this dish, it breaks down like this: one-way is just chili in a bowl. Two-way is served on spaghetti. Three-way is served on spaghetti with cheddar cheese. Four-way is three-way plus chopped onions (raw). Five-way, the ultimate version as far as I can tell, is all of the forgoing plus beans, either in the form of chili beans or kidney beans, warmed separately and added either on top of the spaghetti, or on the bare plate before the spaghetti. Well, how could I opt for anything less than the full experience? Five-way it is.

Cincinnati Chili
Adapted from Allrecipes
Serves 5

454 grams lean ground beef
4 cups filtered water
200 mL unsalted tomato sauce
1 medium yellow onion, finely grated
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed
1/2 tablespoon dark cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin (ground)
3 whole cloves
3 whole allspice berries
1 bay leaf

The night before, break up the meat into a medium-sized pot and cover with water. Bring the mixture to a low boil, and cook for about a half-hour, or until the meat is finely broken down and cooked through. Top up with more water as needed - it should be a bit watery. In fact, it looks kind of awful. That's okay, it gets better tomorrow. Cool it down, and then refrigerate overnight, in the same pot.

The day of, skim the solidified fat from the top and discard. Or make candles, or bird feeders, or whatever it is you do with tallow. Re-heat the meat and water mixture, and add everything else. About half-way through grating the onion, I couldn't hold it without risking grating my fingers, too, it was all so slippery with tear-inducing onion juice, so I wimped out and tossed the rest into the min-prep and let the sharp blades finish mincing it for me.

Simmer over a low heat for three hours, to allow time for all of the flavours to develop, adding water as necessary to keep it from drying out. The texture should be more along the lines of a pasta sauce, so it needs to stay "loose".

For five way, drain and rinse your beans, and reheat them separately in a little water. Cook up however much spaghetti you want to use - we go for smaller portions here, so a half-pound (225 ml) spaghetti gives me 4 servings, leaving one "serving" of chili leftover to make a "cheese coney" in the middle of the night. Ahem. So, beans, spaghetti (in which ever order you want to put them), topped with a full portion of the chili (1/5 of the pot), topped with finely chopped onion, and finished with a whole lot of cheddar cheese (I used sharp cheddar, because that's how I roll). Oyster crackers on the side, to be added by the various diners.

I didn't have a grater that would give me the kind of long, fine strands of cheese that I wanted, so I simply went with a fine shred. The overall effect is not the same, but it seemed a better option than using a coarser shred.

So, the verdict: The two-stage meat cooking yielded a texture that was very silky, almost fluffy, and I cannot imagine a way to get that without the lengthy cook time. The combined seasonings were incredibly tasty, although for my tastes I could have upped the allspice and clove (perhaps with a little pinch of ground spices, instead of whole), and I could have easily upped the cocoa to a full tablespoon, too. However, even exactly as written above, it was fragrant, rich, and satisfying, and a dish I'd be happy to have again. A tasty dinner, indeed.

Now I just need to get myself to Cincinnati, and check out the real deal.

April 19, 2012

Pork & Turkey Meatloaf

If you're thinking that you've seen this combination of meats from me before, you're right: Pork & Turkey Meatballs is the exact same recipe, so check it out if you would like to make this. The only change is that you're making one big meatball, so to speak, and it takes longer to cook.

I use lean ground turkey thigh and lean ground pork, and cut the meatloaf into 12 slices, effectively making each slice the same food value as one of the meatballs (approximately 133 calories* per slice, if you're counting). It makes a great dinner centrepiece, and the leftovers make predictably delicious sandwiches. In fact, I urge you to make a grilled cheese sandwich in which a very thin slice of this meatloaf is placed between layers of cheese; you will doubtless eat it dangerously fast, if my experience is anything to go by.

For cooking the meatloaf, preheat your oven to 350 F, and shape the meat mixture into a loaf with your hands before placing it gently into a loaf-pan. Bake the meatloaf, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Paint with a little soy sauce or worcestershire sauce, bump up the temperature to 400 F, and bake for another 15 minutes. Carefully remove the meatloaf from the pan (I use two flipper-type spatulas, one on each end) to a warmed plate or a cutting board.

I recommend letting the meatloaf stand for ten minutes when it comes out of the oven before slicing, for optimum slice cohesion. You can tent it with foil if you're worried that it will cool down too much. Slice only what you need right away, and let the rest continue to cool until dinner's over. Then slice the rest, and store how you wish. You'll find the completely cooled meatloaf slices much more neatly and tidily than the first ones.

One of the great things I discovered about this recipe is that it freezes incredibly well. We had a few slices left over after the dinner that you see above, and the aforementioned sandwiches, and I wrapped the slices all together in plastic wrap, which I then bagged up in a freezer bag with the air squeezed out. Two weeks later, we hauled out the bag, defrosted it, reheated the slices on medium power in the microwave, and had a yummy dinner that took very little effort. Somehow, that sort of thing always makes me feel like I'm getting away with something.

What kind of sides you serve with meatloaf is entirely up to your preference. I don't usually go for mashed potatoes, because I don't put a sauce or gravy on the meatloaf. In the picture above, the potato-half you see is a very simple twice-baked potato, wherein the insides of a baked potato were scraped out and mixed with a little monterey jack or edam cheese, some smoked paprika, and a dollop of sour cream. The filling was smoothed back into the baked potato shell, and briefly broiled, topped with a tiny bit more sour cream, and some green onion. You could also go with a nice rice pilaf, or even macaroni and cheese, a creamy orzo side dish, or even french fries. The other side, broccoli, is a no-brainer in our household. Need a veggie? How about broccoli?! We eat a lot of it, either plain steamed with a pinch of kosher salt, or drizzled with a little toasted sesame oil (especially for an Asian-flavoured dinner). In asparagus season, that makes a great choice too, but any veggie side will do: crisp green salad, corn on-or-off the cob, green beans, spicy carrot coins...even green peas, if that's your thing (but I'll pass, frankly). And the end of the day, you know what you like; serve it with this meatloaf.

*calorie information from an online calculator, the accuracy of which I cannot vouch for.

April 14, 2012

Pasta Alla Mizithra

This pasta dish is almost blindingly simple, to the point of being a little...incomplete, shall we say, on its own. But oh, how tasty! I recommend pairing it with a big, colourful Greek salad, and a nice glass of wine. The salad will take longer to make than this dish.

For those of you whose only experience with mizithra is the Spaghetti with browned butter and mizithra at The Spaghetti Factory (where it is one of the tastier items on offer, as I recall), you can make this dish so easily and quickly at home that there's no need to order it out; you just need to get your hands on the cheese itself. Mizithra can be had by the chunk, or pre-grated. The pre-grated stuff is usually so fluffy and finely textured that it disappears entirely into the pasta, instead of giving you the delightful little flecks that you get when you grate it yourself. I recommend buying a small chunk, and grating it yourself, so you can get the size of shavings you prefer.

Pasta Alla Mizithra
Serves 4

250 grams long pasta of your choice (such as the linguine shown here)
1/4 cup butter
60 grams grated mizithra cheese

Melt the butter slowly (ie, over a low temperature) in a skillet or saucepan. Once the foaming stops, and the butter has melted, allow the colour to darken to a dark gold. Do not stir or disturb the sediment in the pan. Once the colour is dark gold/light brown, remove the pan from the heat. If you like a very clear browned butter, carefully pour the liquid off of the solids (and discard the solids), but I confess I like the toastiness of leaving the solids in. You can do all this while the water boils for the pasta.

Cook the pasta and drain. Toss the pasta thoroughly with the browned butter, making sure every strand is coated.

In a large serving bowl, spritz a little olive oil, then sprinkle 1/4 of the grated cheese. Layer three more times with buttered pasta and grated cheese, ending with cheese. Present at table, and toss gently while serving up portions. Finish with parsley, if you like a bit of green, and lots of black pepper.

You can see how a nice, bright vegetable salad will perk this right up. If you want to go into butter overload territory, add garlic bread on the side, too. A glass of wine will cut the richness of butter and cheese nicely. I recommend a crisp white, or a lighter bodied red - such as sangiovese, gamay noir, or cabernet franc, for example.

The portions indicated here are smaller than you'd get at a restaurant, but that's because I usually serve modest portions of pasta, in the Italian model (although I don't usually serve it as a first course for a larger meal). It's an approach that particularly makes sense for a rich dish, such as this one. If you want the "big pasta experience", I guess this would serve two people, by North American standard serving sizes.