Tuesday, November 23, 2010

CHILI COOKOFF, PART II: Meatless Football Night

For the second installation of the Official Chili Cook-Off 2010, I envisioned serving a smoky vegetarian chili to a discerning group of non-meat eaters as they cheered on the Giants with zeal. How tough could that be?

I started by clicking on the NFL schedule. Just as farmers have their almanac, I rely on major NFC rivalries to plot our chili dinners, and selecting this Sunday was a no-brainer. The Giants were slated to play the Eagles, whose quarterback Michael Vick recently left prison to tear up the football field. A big game for sure, but I wasn’t too worried about our prospect. Giants' defense took out five quarterbacks this season – a stat serious enough to frighten even a convict like Vicks.

I just needed a few vegetarian guinea pigs, another relatively easy task given that my brother hasn't eaten meat in over 15 years and I have several friends and neighbors who don't either. Unfortunately, the game started rather late and my vegetarian base had other plans, like visiting parents, working and putting kids to bed. So I readjusted the schedule for my brother –aka Guinea Pig #1—and focused on the chili itself.

Along with lasagna, vegetarian chili has long served as a go-to option when entertaining herbivores. After all, beans and vegetables are hardy and full of protein. Love the concept, but don't care for most veggie chili recipes, which often are too lazy –tasting like glorified tomato sauce and beans— or try too hard, jammed with incongruous meat-simulators like Bulgar.

My dream chili would convey the same smoky flavor and rich texture as the beans at Hill Country, an excellent Texan BBQ joint not far from Madison Square Garden. Trouble is that Hill Country drenches those beans in bacon grease, something Baby Bro would not appreciate.

Rather than pig fat, I added sweet paprika, ancho chili powder, and dried whole chili pepper to Cooking Light’s Chunky Vegetarian Chili. Then I bulked up the texture by playing around with the bean ratio (not a huge fan of black beans which taste like squid ink to) and adding dried porcini mushrooms. Next time, I will do fresh porcinis with a handful of shitake, well rinsed and diced. The dried ones are difficult to clean, and come unevenly cut. My husband was not pleased to find an oversized porcini in his bowl, asking, “Did I win some sort of prize?”

Sort of like the dried porcinis, the game around which I framed Chili Cook Off #2 was disappointing. Giants suffered a devastating loss to Philadelphia, due in part to an embarrassing fumble by our QB Eli Manning –diminishing my hopes for Chili Play Off: The Giants Version.

The Jeanne always said, “The key to happiness is to leave room for serendipity.” And, our evening was full of unanticipated delight. We were joined by my brother’s family and –a special treat— our beloved cousin from Vancouver for an early Sunday supper. Though 100% of the under 7-year old crowd refused chili in favor of boxed mac ‘n cheese, we enjoyed watching them gallivant around the apartment nonetheless. And Ezra, my token vegetarian, gave the chili a hearty stamp of approval.

Finally, I inadvertently postponed writing this post until today, what would have been the 105th birthday of Gert, my dainty football-loving grandmother. Serendipity indeed.

Smoky Vegetarian Chili


1 tbsp canola oil

2 cups chopped onion

½ cup chopped red bell pepper

½ cup chopped green bell pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tbsp brown sugar

1 ½ Tbsp chili powder

1 tsp Ancho chile

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 – 2 whole dried chilis, crumbled

¼ bottle beer

½ cup of porcini mushrooms, rinsed well and diced evenly

¼ cup shitake mushroom, rinsed well and diced evenly.

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp dried oregano

½ tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper

2 cans of stewed tomatoes, undrained

1 can (15 oz) black beans, rinsed and drained

1 can (15 oz) garbanzo beans, reinsed and drained

2 cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained

2 cans kidney beans, rinsed and drained

Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, and dried chilis, sautee for 5 minutes or until tender. Add beer and let cook down. Add sugar and remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Last Blessings: Sausage Chestnut Stuffing

In 2001, I felt grown up enough to host Thanksgiving. Jeff and I had become engaged that spring and wanted to bring our families together for a major holiday. Thanksgiving was the perfect debut. Not only did it lack any religious presumptions, but we lived on the legendary block where Macy's blows up its floats for the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Judging from my notes, I went into planning overdrive; drafting an exhaustive menu, assigning dishes, and even engineering how to transport our 25 lb turkey from 75th Street to 77th Street. (I gamely used a wheelie suitcase.) Meanwhile, Mom packed her own suitcase, filling it with Gourmet recipes from her 1970s heyday. She was going to join me for a Thanksgiving Cooking Sleepover Party.

What my brisk list-making skills belied was that I had no clue how to make a turkey. Nor had I used any of that organizational zeal to research the matter. Luckily, I had the Jeanne, who quietly prepared Thanksgiving dinner while I held my proverbial clipboard. As we bustled around my humble galley kitchen, I inadvertently received an excellent education in Thanksgiving entertainment.

No sooner had I dumped our turkey out of the suitcase that Mom began to wash and prepare the bird. She showed me how to tie up the legs and season it well. I grumbled that she was doing everything. “It's MY Thanksgiving! How am I supposed to learn if you don't let me make the turkey?” I maturely whined. She went on prodding the bird.

The stuffing was what finally shut me up. Mom’s Gourmet magazine recipe for Chestnut Sausage Stuffing was not written in tidy bullet points, but prose. Reading it was like decoding Beowulf. Mom deftly cooked the sausage in the turkey’s liver, magically making the liver melt into a wondrous sauce. Liver? I was simultaneously appalled and fascinated, wondering if I would ever have the nerve –let alone skill— to mess around with turkey innards.

By the time the guests arrived, I was in full Tasmanian devil mode. If I wasn’t shelling out crude commands like Bobby Knight, I was hovering over the turkey, opening the door so obsessively the poor bird had no chance of cooking.

As I yanked a dish from the oven, its ceramic handle broke off; the searing shard whacked me squarely in the forehead. Blood gushed everywhere. (OK, maybe not gushed, but clearly I was in mortal danger.) Everyone raced around, showering me with ice and the appropriate level of concern. I calmed down a bit, until Mom pondered aloud whether we should go to the emergency room. “I don’t know what to do,” she murmured innocently. I freaked, bellowing, “I want to go to the hospital!!!!!!!!!!!! NOW!!!” After all, if Jeanne didn’t know what to do, no one did.

Mom was hardly known for her calm demeanor. She was more of a sing-at-the-top-your-lungs-and-dance-on-the-fireplace kind of girl. Nevertheless, as a mother, she knew how to keep her cool in the face of a panicky child. (That panicky child was usually me.) Her graceful composure got us through some truly harrowing moments. To me, it's the very definition of adulthood.

I had hoped that Thanksgiving would mark the first of many such adult occasions in which I graciously hosted my mother, repaying her for all her generosity. I envisioned years of Mom and I creating holidays as an inimitable –albeit sometimes bickering and comical— team.

Alas, that was the last Thanksgiving Mom ever celebrated.

Every Thanksgiving, we traditionally pause from the day’s feasting, preparations and logistical details to give thanks for our blessings. A hokey and forced tradition perhaps, yet I silently cling to the same blessing each year. Thank you [God, Fate or Whatever], for allowing Jeanne’s last Thanksgiving be one in which her inner grace and beauty shined forth. Thank you for allowing me to share it with her.

Chestnut and Sausage Stuffing

Gourmet magazine, 1977

I have no idea where Mom’s copy of her stuffing recipe went. Thanks, however, to modern technology, I found this recipe on epicurious.com (link included below). The ingredients and vintage are exactly right, so I am just going to believe this is Mom’s. I have yet to actually attempt cooking this recipe of derring-do. On Wednesday, you can virtually join my Thanksgiving Cooking Party as I cook (and blog about) “The Stuffing.” In true navel-gazing fashion, I may even tweet a few play-by-plays. It could be a disaster, but I’ll try to make it an entertaining one. Stay tuned.

  • 1 (1 1/4-pound) loaf country-style bread, crust discarded and bread cut into 3/4-inch cubes (8 cups)
  • 1/2 pound sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3 medium onions, coarsely chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound bulk pork sausage
  • 1 turkey liver (optional), coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup Cognac or other brandy
  • 1 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup turkey stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 (14- to 15-oz) jar peeled cooked whole chestnuts, coarsely crumbled (3 cups)
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried sage, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart shallow baking dish.

Spread bread cubes in a large shallow baking pan (1 inch deep) and bake in lower third of oven until completely dry, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes. (Leave oven on.)

While bread bakes, cook bacon in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat, stirring, until crisp, about 10 minutes, then transfer with a slotted spoon to a large bowl.

Pour off and discard all but 2 tablespoons bacon fat from skillet, then sauté onions in fat over moderately high heat, stirring and scraping up brown bits, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add celery and sauté, stirring, 3 minutes, then transfer vegetables to bowl with bacon.

Cook sausage and liver (if using) in skillet, stirring and breaking up sausage with a fork, until meat is no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes, then transfer with slotted spoon to onion mixture.

Pour off any remaining fat from skillet. Add Cognac (off heat), then deglaze skillet by simmering over moderate heat, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, 1 minute, and add to sausage mixture.

Increase oven temperature to 375°F.

Soak bread cubes in half-and-half in a bowl, tossing frequently, until liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Gently squeeze excess liquid from bread, then stir bread into sausage mixture, discarding remaining half-and-half. Stir together stock and eggs and add to stuffing, then stir in chestnuts, herbs, salt, and pepper until combined well.

Transfer stuffing to baking dish and cover with foil, then bake in upper third of oven 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until top is crisp, about 20 minutes more.

Cooks' notes: ·Bread can be dried 1 week ahead and kept in a sealed plastic bag at room temperature.
·Stuffing can be assembled (but not baked) 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before baking.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010


Elaborate dinner plans were not in the offing tonight. We had an action packed day, which included taking small children to a Giants football game where a power outage occurred. By 8pm this evening, survival seemed like a noteworthy accomplishment, and I was particularly happy to have Weekend Hash on hand.

I inadvertently conceived Weekend Hash last week when a friend on Facebook posted a recipe for Lentils with Bacon (http://www.notakeout.com/lentils-with-bacon/). The recipe sounded so cozy that I decided to make it for Shabbat dinner on Friday. Never mind that bacon played a starring role. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a cultural chameleon, half-Jewish/half-Christian, which means I blend traditions at will. (I also, by the way, get a special dispensation from the Pope to eat bread on Easter. Makes sense to me!) Anyway, this dish yielded an extraordinary amount of lentils; far more than we could consume in one sitting. I stuffed the lentils into the fridge, briefly pondered their fate, and moved on.

After all, I had big cooking plans for Saturday. I was going to tackle Melissa Clark’s Vegetable Wellington (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/dining/10apperex.html) from last week’s New York Times. In this delectable recipe, you blend roasted butternut squash with mushrooms and goat cheese and wrap it all in puffed pastry. What could be bad? Nothing, except that I roasted way more butternut squash than the delicate puffed pastry could hold.

As I was scraping the remains of squash into yet another Tupperware container, I had an epiphany: Why not toss everything in my fridge together and call it Sunday dinner? Hardly a unique idea –I once saw an entire Malcolm in the Middle dedicated to a casserole of leftovers—but the combination of squash, lentils and goat cheese was, well, quite perfect. The earthy taste of lentils perfectly offset the sweetness of squash. Goat cheese blends it all together beautifully.

Weekend Hash may seem a bit labor intensive (it took me a whole weekend to get it together), but it’s the type of dish you could eat all week –on salads for lunch or as a side dish for dinner. Give it a shot, and let me know how you might tweak it. Who knows? Maybe, collectively, all of our weekend leftovers constitute the perfect meal.


Adapted from Melissa Clark’s New York Times Column, “A Good Appetite” and www.notakeout.com


For Lentils:

  • 1 leek, trimmed and minced (save two cleaned outer leaves of leeks)
  • 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley (cleaned and chopped finely)
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 1 bunch scallions (trimmed an minced)
  • 1 lb. lentils (preferably green lentilles de Puy), picked through for stones and rinsed
  • Bay leaf
  • Black pepper, freshly ground
  • Dijon mustard
  • 3 Tbsp Olive oil
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Sea salt or kosher salt

For Roasted Squash:

  • 1 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 lb of butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/8 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika or regular paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
  • 1 oz goat cheese


  • Wrap 5 parsley stems, 12 sprigs thyme, and 2 bay leaves inside the 2 leek leaves, and tie them with kitchen twine.
  • Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, sautee the leek for 3 minutes.
  • Add the lentils and the herbs tied in leek leaves and immediately cover with water.
  • Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are crisp-tender, which can take from 20-30 minutes.
  • While lentils cook, melt butter in very large over high heat.
  • Add the squash in a single layer and cook, undisturbed, for 4 minutes. (If squash won’t fit in a single layer, cook it in batches).
  • Stir and continue to cook until squash is golden, 7 to 10 minutes more. Stir in the syrup, thyme, paprika and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook one minute. Scrape mixture into a bowl.
  • Put lentils and squash in fridge for 30 minutes.
  • Whisk 1 tbsp of olive oil into mustard and vinegar to make dressing. Set aside.
  • Once the squash and lentils have cooled, toss with dressing and goat cheese.

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