Thursday, March 19, 2009

Chili Cookoff

Wow, I hadn't realized how long I'd left my blog dormant until visiting it today and seeing June '08 as the date on the last post. My bad. I wanted to recount the story of today's chili cook-off and figured, "Where better place to do so than my long-defunct blog?"

Anyway, my company has a chili cook-off every year on the first day of the NCAA tournament. It's pretty awesome...lots of people bring in chili, then everyone gets to vote for winners in three categories (the voting is blind):
  • Best Chili
  • Hottest Chili
  • What the Hell is in This Chili?
I love chili, and I had talked some trash in advance of this event this year only to find out that the reigning champion (and the recipient of my trash talking) was bowing out of the competition due to "scheduling conflicts" and the expense and time it would take. "Loser!" I thought, "It's just making a pot of chili, how hard can that be?" I will note that at time I was having these thoughts I had never made chili from scratch. I've made it several times, but I've always used a chili starter or a seasoning packet so that I didn't have to buy 700 ingredients that I would use approximately one time per year. Now that I have made chili from scratch, I would like to apologize wholeheartedly to Ari for labeling him a loser in my mind. Making chili can be fraught with danger, as I was soon to find out.

I picked a recipe the scientific Googling "shredded beef chili" and making the first recipe labeled "Shredded Beef Chili." I didn't realize until after I was wedded to the recipe that it contained none of the usual chili ingredients. This chili would not feature beans, tomatoes or tomato products of any kind, chili powder or sauce, nor cayenne pepper. So basically it had zero probability of tasting like chili from the outset, but I decided that I didn't care so ahead I forged. Instead, this recipe relied heavily on actual chilis I would need to seed and chop up. From then on, my chili making became a study in decision making, both bad and (luckily) good.

Let's start with my first bad decision. I went to Whole Foods to buy ingredients and immediately decided that the recipe would not make enough chili...I needed to increase it by half to ensure that I would have enough. So off I run to buy 17 chili peppers, six onions and three pounds of beef. Looking back on it, I should have realized that a 3 quart crockpot would in no way, shape or form hold that much food. Instead, like a moron, I bought all of it for my chili masterpiece. Now, I did make a few smart decisions. My recipe called for flank steak which, at Whole Foods, was $15 a pound. I bought brisket for $6 a pound and it worked fine. I also couldn't find ancho chilies and instead bought poblanos, thinking to myself "Well, poblanos are mild so at least I won't injure anyone by adding these instead." Today I googled ancho chilis to find that they are dried I wasn't off at all in picking out my ingredients. Go me.

Then I went home to make my chili and realized that I was going to have to do a pretty good balancing act to actually cook something of this magnitude in my kitchen. I live in a studio apartment. My entire workspace in the kitchen is about 2 feet wide and it's junked up with my knife block, banana hanger, etc. I also only have about 4 pans and two legit mixing bowls. As I got out the items I would need to use to cook (including my blender and my crockpot) I realized that this was pretty much going to take over every usable item and nook in my kitchen in short order. Anyway, I set to work browning meat and chopping up veggies and soon realized problem number two...

My recipe called for 17 chili peppers and I began chopping them up with wild abandon sans gloves. Soon my hands began to tingle. I wiped them on a towel I had handy and kept going. The tingling became a mile burning and I began to worry. Mild buring starting to give way to serious, painful burning and I starting panicing looking for a way to make the burning stop. Somewhere along the way I scratched my face next to my nose, so now I had a burning streak there too. I washed my hands multiple times, but that didn't work, partly because I dried them on the pepper-tainted towel a couple of times before figuring out that that was part of the problem. I dunked them in a bowl of milk....that worked, but made it really hard to continue cooking. I ultimately finished the chopping of chilis by doing a really awkward dance alternating between the bowl of milk in my sink and my chopping block. It is also around this time that I realized that 17 chilis was a LOT and that I may have overestimated how much chili I needed by just a bit. I only ended up cutting up 15 chilis before realizing this, of course.

At this point, I knew my hands were going to burn for a while, so I decided I just had to live with it. I moved on to the onions. I'm not sure if my eyes are more sensitive than the average human's or if I got super-powered "Terms of Endearment" onions or something, but the second I cut into onion number one I was inconsolable. Tears streaming down my face, makeup smearing all over the place, I managed to make it partway through onion number two before running to my open window to air myself out. I made it through onion three by running back and forth between my chopping block and my bathroom which was (thankfully) onion free. After onion three I gave up on the onions...both because I looked like I had watched an entire family of puppies die and because I must have bought the three biggest onions in the world. Seriously, three onions yeilded the same volume of vegetables as the 15 peppers.

At this point, my house was veritably overflowing with peppers and, the source of an unpleasant burning sensation in my hands and one causing me to cry uncontrollably. It was very attractive. I had completed other, less dangerous chili-making steps earlier so now I was ready to cram all this stuff into my crock pot. Or, as I would soon find out, my crockpot and my other main cooking pot since there was no way in hell everything was fitting in that crockpot. I literally filled it to the point of overflowing, then shoved the rest into a stovetop pot to cook. It smelled good and as it cooked I could tell it was going to turn out alright, so that was the good news.

The bad news is that my hands were now burning worse than ever. I had had to handle the peppers and onions to get them into their respective cooking vessels, and that had started the fire all over again. Even worse, now I no longer had anything to distract me from my burning hands, so I set about trying to bring the fire to an end by any means necessary. I washed my hands a few more times and slathered on some lotion, but that didn't work at all. I got another bowl of milk, which worked until it warmed up to room temperature. Apparently the milk only really worked because it was making my hands numb. Then I tried soaking my hands in a bowl of beer. That worked a little better, but again...I think the numbness had a big hand in that success. I took some advil and stuck my hands in some sorbet next. That seemed to work too. Ultimately I credit the advil, beer and sorbet cocktail with quelling the burning enough for me to get to sleep.

This morning, chili happily bubbling away in its crockpot (the second batch in the fridge), I got up and went to the gym. I have a well-loved sweatshirt I wear for the walk over every morning, then take off and stow in a locker during my workout. I realized just how much my entire apartment and I must have smelled like chili when I took my sweatshirt out of the locker for the walk home. I might as well have rolled myself in cumin. Gross.

Ultimately, my chili nightmare became a success. I managed to get it to work without incident and it won the "What the Hell is in This Chili?" award as expected. I was complimented on it quite a bit, but honestly it would probably be better for tacos and burritos than as chili. Regardless, I'm glad it was good after all of the trauma involved in making it. I learned a few important lessons this chili cookoff:

1. Resist the temptation to increase a recipe, particularly if you've never made it before
2. Learn how big a medium yellow onion actually is. Apparently "softball sized" is not medium
3. Buy gloves. Wear them
4. Use paper towels when cutting up chilis, not dish towels
5. Poblanos are fresh Ancho chilis and are dark green. Ancho chilis are red Poblano chilis that have been dried
6. If you're standing in Whole Foods thinking to yourself, "Wow...this is a lot for one pot of chili" you've probably bought too much food
7. Take your makeup off BEFORE you chop onions


At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Pat said...

I was crying also, not by onions, but by the thought of your over-sized hands swelling in a vat of milk and beer. And by crying, I mean, laughing hysterically. Awesome. Easily your funniest post since the one about the Family Stone.

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