Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chili, will he?

This weekend was the my lab ski trip. We stayed in an octagonal cabin overlooking Lake Tahoe. I usually have a lot of fun volunteering to cook something for trips like this--it just gives me such a thrill to prepare all sorts of spice blends and pre-measured grains, and to organize them into tiny jars, and then place the jars into color-coded grocery bags based on which meal they're going to be used for, and also to put the corresponding cookware into these bags, and to delegate all the chopping and frying and stuff. It's just way fun. I always ask about dietary restrictions beforehand. I consider dietary restrictions to be just kind of a challenge, and generally in life when I hear that there's a challenge I try to go all Stinkoman 20X6 on it.

This time I was given the following challenge: prepare a dish for seventeen people,

1) two of whom are vegetarians
2) one of whom has a gluten allergy
3) one of whom is the pickiest eater known to humankind
4) in a kitchen that you will be seeing for the first time
5) after returning from skiing at 6:30 PM.

So I decided on chili with a side dish of a potato gratin and a salad with pecans and pears. I made the chili two days ahead of time and stuck it on the stove as soon as I got back from the slopes, figuring that the flavors would only improve sitting in the refrigerator for 48 hours. I made the chili totally vegan and just fried some ground beef with cumin and oregano when I got to the cabin, hoping that the omnivores in my lab could add the beef as a topping to satisfy their carnal desires.

In the end my effort was mostly a success--I wasn't able to get dinner on the table until 8:45, but it tasted great to me and seemed to be a hit with sixteen of the seventeen guests, the only holdout being the aforementioned pickiest eater known to humankind. Having seen him turn down plain roasted chicken in favor of bread and fruit roll-ups, I'm always careful to tell him my meal plans beforehand, just in case he wants to bring some backup food. I had high hopes for the chili because I had seen him eat three bites of paella on our last camping trip. Still, I decided to consult with him beforehand:

SM: "Hey, just so you know, I'm making chili for the ski trip, if you're trying to decide how much food you want to bring. I won't be offended if you eat it or not--just wanted you to know!"
TD: "Oh, thanks. I've never had chili. What's in it?"
SM: "Well, it's basically beans, tomatoes, and meat, with some seasonings."
TD: "Oh, okay... chili doesn't sound very good. I mean, not your chili, just chili in general."
SM: "I mean, it's basically just a sloppy joe with beans."
TD: "I have never had a sloppy joe."

So, well, the chili didn't go over well with him. Well, he didn't know what he was missing. I decided to do things the Kenji way, toasting some dried chilies beforehand, rehydrating them, blending them into a paste with star anise and other spices, then frying the paste in oil, adding tomatoes and stock, and cooking beans in it. I didn't quite assemble the same laundry list as he did--I just used a little miso for umami instead of marmite, anchovies, and soy sauce--and I didn't braise any shortribs, sadly. Six months ago this would have seemed like an absurdly complicated recipe to me, but after the black mole, making only one paste to fry instead of four and not even having to strain it seems almost like cheating. How easy is that?

And then I was doubleplusproud of the method I came up with for transporting a pot full of eight quarts of chili to Tahoe: I poured off all the liquid, stored it in two half-gallon jugs with a double layer of plastic wrap under the lid, and put those in a color-coded bag which went into the trunk. Then I took the chili pot, now full of only cooked beans that wouldn't slosh around as much, wrapped it in four layers of plastic wrap and tin foil, and kept that at my feet for the car ride. If it's gonna spill, at least it will spill on my old corduroys. It was awesome except Monica's car probably still smells like chili and the stank of my ski boots.

My labmate Vicky, pictured on the left, came up with an even more elegant solution the next day: a vegetable curry with pork on the side and delicious spring rolls wrapped in rice paper. I stupidly made nachos with the leftover chili and ate way too many of them as a snack to have enjoyed the process of wrapping spring rolls, but seeing Vicky do it did give me the confidence to make my own spring rolls at home someday. Well, it has to go better than bearnaise sauce.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to my next lab cooking challenge this summer, since my professor has arbitrarily declared that we are going out on a houseboat on Lake Shasta. So look at restrictions (1) - (4) above, add (5) on a houseboat, and let me know what you would do.

No comments:

Post a Comment