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Getting back in the groove

I haven’t just been neglecting this blog; I’ve also been neglecting the kitchen. I’ve been out of the habit of regular cooking for a really ridiculous amount of 2012 so far, and it’s a little embarrassing.

There are reasons, of course. Work is a big one. In mid-February I was out of town for several days on a trip to another of our offices — no cooking in the hotel room, oddly enough — and in the course of the trip I took on a big project that’s been dominating my work ever since. It’s a good project, though I really can’t say much about it so will not dribble out information, but it’s meant a lot of late departures from the office and some extra busy weekends, plus two additional business trips, all of which cut into cooking time.

My “Jeopardy!” success is another one, oddly enough. My winnings arrived at the beginning of April, and while the bulk of the funds are in savings, went to Kiva.org (you can join our lending team, Friends of Bob Harris), or were used to pay off credit cards and replace our failing home computers, I did indulge in a little bit of restaurant exploration. (We highly recommend neighborhood restaurant Salt & Fat, by the way.) It’s been fun to try a few places we hadn’t been able to afford before, or to treat guests on a few occasions. But in the bigger picture, having some extra money on hand has made it a little too easy to take the lazy option when work ran late again or I got home tired from a day running errands.

This weekend was my first real respite in some time. Recent travel and deadlines had left me exhausted and a bit out of sorts, and I realized that part of the problem was that I haven’t really cooked in weeks and it was driving me crazy. So tonight I hopped back on the bike, as it were, and made a batch of what I’ve come to call my “sneaky zucchini” chili.


It’s a recipe I’ve come to love. After browning some onions I add a couple of shredded zucchinis to the pot along with a generous pinch of salt, and let them cook for a while, stirring frequently, until zucchini has given up a lot of its moisture and cooked down significantly. Then I add a little more olive oil if necessary, and start to work in whatever other ingredients I’m working with: sausage, garlic, mushrooms, green peppers, spices, anything else I’m playing with, and finishing up with kidney beans, canned crushed tomatoes, and canned whole tomatoes that I’ve cut into quarters. One other key thing I’ve been doing is soaking a few dried chiles in boiling water for about 10 minutes, then chopping them (discarding the stems and as many of the seeds as I see fit to) and adding the chiles and a bit of the soaking water to the pot. That adds a beautiful smoky flavor, and helps ensure that what little zucchini flavor might still be detectable is pushed far into the background. The zucchini adds fiber and a bit of body but is essentially undetectable. Though I don’t consider it deceptive because I’ve never tried to pass it off as chili without zucchini in it.


My work project continues, but I am hoping to get back into more of a cooking habit. I do have some vacation time coming up, which should give me a chance to try new things, and the neighborhood Greenmarket opens in about a month. If nothing else I can get back into the habit of making salad and pasta; tomatoes can’t come in soon enough for me.

Vegetable-rich chili, and a personal note


So it’s finally really winter in New York. I tend to be very dismissive of New Yorkers and how much they whine about the weather. Ooh, it’s so cold out, they say when it’s 45, and I think, It’s January! It’s supposed to be cold! Get over it! And then we get a day where the temperature never rises above freezing and the wind whips down the avenues and I think, maybe I’m being too mean. And say, doesn’t chili sound good for dinner?


I need to place a Penzey’s order. The Penzey’s that was in the Grand Central Marketplace has been replaced by some more expensive boutique spice shop, and my days of picking up high-quality spices at a low price on the way home are over. So I’m out of the really good chili powder, but as I browsed through my spice shelf I remembered that I have several dried peppers. Perhaps I could make up the deficit with those. I put a dried cascabel, a dried ancho, and a dried chipotle into my Pyrex measuring cup and poured on some boiling water, and let the peppers sit while I chopped up the rest of the ingredients. When I thought the peppers had soaked long enough I chopped them up; I discarded most of the seeds from the cascabel but kept them from the ancho and chipotle. I saved the soaking water (pouring some over the chopped peppers) in case I needed more liquid later.


I browned some onions in olive oil, then added garlic and two small zucchinis, shredded. I sprinkled on some kosher salt and sauteed them for a while, until the zucchini was lightly browned and had cooked down quite a bit. I then began adding my other chunky components: chicken sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, and kidney beans. For chili I like to use one large can of crushed tomatoes and one large can of whole tomatoes; I cut the whole tomatoes into chunks before adding them and their juice to the pot. I added the chopped chiles and a small amount of the soaking water, plus some lesser chili powder, some cumin, some coriander, and some epazote. I brought the pot to a simmer, covered it, and let it cook for about half an hour.


When I uncovered the pot I steamed up my glasses. Ah, the joys of finally starting to wear glasses full-time at age 44! Once the steam cleared I stirred the pot and saw that the chunks were tender and the liquid had thickened slightly. The chili smelled rich and smoky, but not too spicy; I considered adding a bit of Tabasco but decided not to, thinking it would be fine without the added bite. I stirred in some chopped scallions and spooned up bowls for me and Scott.


The chili was terrific; the chili peppers had given it a depth of flavor and a smoky tone, but not too much heat. (The chipotle was pretty small; maybe using two or three would have heated things up.) The slow simmering had taken the tart edge off the tomatoes and had allowed the shredded zucchini to effectively disappear into the liquidy base. We couldn’t really see zucchini shreds but we enjoyed the body they gave the chili. I’ll definitely keep using rehydrated dried peppers, perhaps experimenting with a few other varieties. And next summer I want to can some Greenmarket tomatoes for use in winter soups and stews.

I’m probably not doing the cooking again until at least Wednesday. Scott is in charge of homemade pizza tomorrow, and on Tuesday night we’re having a party at the office to watch me compete on “Jeopardy!” That’s right: In November we went out to Los Angeles for taping, and have been sworn to secrecy ever since, but on Tuesday everyone will finally get to find out how my (first?) episode went. So tune in!