Monday, July 7, 2008

Pantry-clearing chili

Long long ago I bought a chunk of tasajo--Cuban-style dried beef--intending to use it for a dish of oil down. I had no luck finding the breadfruit I needed for the recipe and I'm sick of looking at it so I researched alternate uses. Other than just snacking on it, as it is beef jerky essentially, most applications are stews, either simple or with a long list of what I assume are vegetables that I've never heard of.

The seasoning on those stews are the standard minimalistic Cuban set, but I"ve been thinking about chili since my southwestern hominy stew got out of control and turned into something not quite close enough to chili to satisfy (although it's fine if you're not holding it to that standard). I've still got some black beans and chilies left from that, plus a sack full of CSA onions starting to go past their prime. Add a can of tomatoes, the right spices and maybe some corn meal to thicken and that's chili. It's not the traditional bowl of red, but by using dried beef it's closer to cowboy chili than most recipes come. I've never tried that before so I was curious how it would go.

The first step is an overnight soak for the tasajo, the beans and the peppers (in individual bowls). That yellow on the beef is colored beef fat, part of the preservation process. I scraped off a good bit so the water could get through.

The peppers seemed to be done soaking in the morning so I poured their liquid onto the beans and put them in the fridge for later. The other two soaked until I got home from work.

At this point the tasajo was nicely rehydrated and hard to distinguish from an oversalted, slightly overcooked piece of fresh beef. I scraped off some more of the fat and chopped it up into pieces and inch or two on the side. I figured they'd either hold together at that bite-sized size or fall apart into strands as they cooked. I also added a pound of fresh beef (the "for stew" scraps you get at the supermarket). To make sure it would have a different texture than either of the dried beef possibilities I ran it through the food processor. During an episode of Good Eats on ground beef Alton Brown recommended ten pulses for burgers and seven for chili. When he actually did a chili episode he just cut the beef into cubes, but I wanted to try this. The results are a bit uneven, but I figured the big pieces would fall apart once the connective tissue melted during cooking.

I also chopped up two and a half onions (one red, the rest yellow), a few cloves of garlic, and a couple fresh small hot chilies.

And now to cook. I preheated the over to 300 degrees and heated some oil (and some of that yellow beef fat. Why waste it?) in a dutch oven. First order of business was to brown the ground beef in a few batches. Then I tossed in the dried beef just to melt off the rest of the fat. Both those out, I added a bit more oil and tossed in chili powder, cumin, ground chilies and some Mexican oregano. Once they got fragrant I added the vegetables, turned down the heat, and gave them a bit of a sweat until they softened. Once they were ready I returned the beef, added a 14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes in juice and my rehydrated peppers and into the oven it went for two hours.

The black beans I decided to cook separately for a couple reasons. First, you want to salt a stew early, but if you salt beans they take forever to get soft. Second, you need to simmer beans to cook them, but you want to keep a stew under a boil to keep the meat tender. So I cooked the beans on the countertop in the bean and chili soaking liquid with a bay leaf and some bits of hot Mexican carrots, onion and jalapenos I pickled last month. They never got hot enough to be great on their own, but they make a good ingredient. The beans took about an hour to cook and I added them to the stew when it had 45 minutes left to go.

At the same time I added a few handfuls of corn meal to thicken the dish. I didn't have any masa so I ran some polenta through the food processor (before I did the beef) to try to get a finer grind. It didn't really work.

Forty-five minutes later and the dish was done. The tasajo didn't fall apart so it's in chewy chunks. It's pretty much the dried-out texture you get if you actually boil a stew for a couple hours. Not jerky-esque at all. It's still a bit saltier than fresh beef, but palatably so. Hardly worth the bother unless it's the only meat you can get your hands on after you've at sea for a month.

I really like the texture of the fresh beef, though. It didn't fall apart like fully ground beef would in a stew so there's something there to chew on, but it's tender enough that you don't have to really work at it. I think that's the takeaway from this experiment: seven pulses in the food processor. I'll have to see how it works in a beef bourguignon when the weather cools off a bit.

I used too much polenta so the chili clotted right up. I'm trying to think of it as cornbread pre-crumbled in for your convenience. I had to thin it out with some chicken stock which I'm hoping the polenta doesn't suck up too.

As for the the flavors, it's pretty much kid's chili. Kind of sweet, from the corn and peppers I think, and only a little heat in the aftertaste. A bit of lime, a shot or two of hot sauce and a few garnishes perks it up, though. Not bad, but nothing special. I've been too timid with the peppers lately; next time I'm going to take my chances and toss a bunch in.

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