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Vegetable-rich chili, and a personal note

ChiliCooked

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?

ChiliIngredients2

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 The Penzey’s that was in the Grand Central Marketplace has been replaced by some more expensive boutique spice shop, and my days of picking up high-quality spices at a low price on the way home are over.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.

CookingZucchiniAndOnions

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.

ChiliToSimmer

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.

ChiliToFreeze

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!

Join Me: Take the Slow Food $5 Challenge

I’m a big believer in home cooking. That’s probably no secret if you’ve been reading this blog. I can be as lazy or inattentive or self-indulgent as anyone — I am not averse to the occasional takeout empanada or sandwich — but I also really enjoy the process of cooking. I like the fact that most of the time, what I end up making is better than something I would buy. And I especially enjoy the fact that for just about anything I make, I end up spending a lot less money than I would if I went out and ordered the same thing at a restaurant, or got home delivery.

There are people who don’t believe this, though. Really. There are people who argue that cooking at home is much too expensive for anyone to do. This mentality gives rise to ridiculous blog posts like “The $84 Stir-Fry,” in which an inexperienced cook demonstrates that she also doesn’t understand the concept of amortization by assuming that the amounts she shelled out for a pepper grinder, a cutting board and a “totally unnecessary” (her term) food scale deserve to be included in the cost of this single meal. (Seriously, did she throw away the scale and cutting board after she ate?) I have a feeling these are also people who don’t actually do the math to compare the costs of a week’s worth of deli sandwiches with the costs of getting the equivalent amount of bread, meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato at the supermarket. The data set may not be valid.

OK, it’s true that if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to do it you may make the mistake of buying the wrong ingredients, in the wrong quantities, for the wrong price. You may make rookie mistakes that result in waste and mess. You may take longer than you think is reasonable because you don’t have the skills to work efficiently. But that doesn’t mean cooking is inherently expensive, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to learn how to do it at all. Smart cooking enables you to make use of the best-priced fresh ingredients you can find, to take advantage of seasonal availability (and the fact that a vegetable at its prime in the market is often at a great price as well — supply and demand in action), and to make smart substitutions that save you money.

Of course there are also a lot of people who can’t find affordable ingredients. They live in food deserts — areas where there are no grocery stores, produce markets, or other sources of reasonably priced fresh food to use for cooking. They have easy access to overpriced bodegas, fast-food outlets galore, and 99-cent stores with dubiously sourced packaged foodstuffs, but not to fresh tomatoes or whole-grain bread or frozen spinach. If you don’t have a car or can’t afford gas, and your nearest supermarket is two bus rides and a 25-minute wait at the transfer point away, you aren’t going to make a habit of grocery shopping; you’re going to get whatever you can find most cheaply near you, no matter how bad for you it is in the long run. This is a big problem, but it won’t help matters if we blithely accept the assumption that cooking at home is expensive and thus isn’t a realistic goal.

Slow Food USA is trying to help spotlight the real value of home cooking. On Saturday, Sept. 17, they’re presenting the $5 Challenge. Participants will either cook or participate in a meal — a slow food meal, cooked with real ingredients by real people — that costs no more than $5 per person. (That applies to ingredients, not to extraneous purchases like “totally unnecessary” scales.) The goal here will not simply be to cobble together cheap ingredients; the goal will be to create a delicious, nourishing meal at a low cost.

Who’s in? I’m in. I’m not planning to host a public event — though those who would like to do so are invited to host an event or attend a hosted event or potluck — but I am planning to cook, photograph and write up a meal, including a detailed accounting of the per-serving cost. I think this is a great chance to demonstrate a few fundamentals of home cooking:

  • Real food doesn’t have to be costly.
  • Real food tastes great.
  • Food that you share with people you care about is nourishing in ways that go beyond vitamins and fiber.
  • You don’t have to be a trained chef to cook something that people will enjoy.

So why don’t you join me? If you know me in real life, get in touch about coming over for dinner. Otherwise, please feel free to dive in and host an event or join one that’s already set up, and come back here to post about it in the comments.