Chili ATX

For the first time in my culinary career, I won a cooking contest!

In celebration of the NFL opening weekend, my work sponsored a chili cook off. Of the 250 or so employed at The Gatehouse Center for News Design in Austin, 10 entered. All of the entry's were tasty and the competition was fierce, but when the judging and voting finished I ended up taking home 1st prize — a $100 gift certificate to H.E.B., a Texas-based grocery chain. 

When our office manager told me I had won, I have to admit, it really made my day. I was hoping to place in the top three, winning was a nice surprise.

I went into the contest with a strategy. No beans, very simple and tons of depth.
No bean chili is a Texas thing so I honored that. I wanted to keep the chili simple and focus on technique to bring the most flavor out of each ingredient.

I built the base of the chili in layers, onions and jalepenos first, followed by the garlic and spices, then the tang of steak sauce and the acidity of tomatoes. The beef and liquid were the final additions. I also cooked the liquid out twice and let it rest in the fridge overnight – because chili is always better the next day.
The real secret to any great chili is a long simmer to evaporate the liquid and concentrate the flavor. That, mixed with building a balanced and flavorful base were the key elements to this recipe.

The strategy worked. I'm honored and proud to be this year's Chili cook off champ!

Eat well, cook often ...

Serves a crowd
10 lbs Ground beef
4 large Onions, finely diced
5 jalapeños, seeded and diced
10 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 C plus 2 Tbs Chili powder
1/4 C plus 1 Tbs Cumin
2 Tbs Mexican oregano
1/4 C A1 steak sauce
1 28 oz can of crushed Tomatoes
1 28 oz can diced Tomatoes
2 Qts Beef Broth
2 Qts water
Tortilla chips for garnish

In a large soup pot (8 qt) over medium heat, brown ground beef in batches, salt and pepper to taste. Remove ground beef and drain all but a quarter cup of the drippings from the pot. 
Add onion and jalepeño, sauté until soft 6 to 8 minutes, salt and pepper to taste. Add chili powder, cumin, Mexican oregano and garlic, cook until fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Add A1 steak sauce and tomatoes, cook a few minutes more. 
Mix in ground beef and add beef broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 2 to 3 hours or until liquid is reduced by 3/4. Remove from heat, let cool and store overnight in the refrigerator. 
The next day return pot to stove, ad four quarts of water, bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer another 2 to 3 hours or until liquid is reduce by half or two thirds. Spoon into bowls and serve with tortilla chips for garnish.

Homemade French Fries

Great homemade french fries are not as easy as they seem to make. Getting the crispy outside and soft, pillowy inside takes some work. I think they are the greatest side dish of all-time and are totally worth going the extra mile for. In fact, I would rather overcook a burger or burn the pizza rather than screw up the fried spuds – they are just that important.

Most people just cut the potatoes and then drop them in oil. This results in decent fries but often they are way overdone and too crunchy or cooked just right without the crispy outside. Such high hopes for the work it takes to cut them often ends in the devastating realization that the french fries are below average or just plain suck.

In order to get the best results, good fries need to be cooked twice and cut as evenly as possible. Most restaurants that make fresh cut fries will first fry them at a low temperature until they are just cooked through, let them cool and fry them again at a hotter temperature to get the crispy outside.

In order to avoid the maximum grease intake, I like to boil the fries first in water to cook them through, then frying them to crisp them up. Just one bath in the hot oil results in less grease absorbed by the potato and there isn't much of a difference in taste.

The boil then fry technique is how I made this batch of fries, which resulted in some damn good crispy spuds. I used my knife to cut them instead of a french fry cutter and that turned out to be their one real flaw. The inconsistent size resulted in varying degrees of doneness and crunchiness. The batch was pretty good overall, but they would have been much better had I dusted off the fry cutter to get one consistent size. With french fries – consistent size matters.

After making these, I have decided to try and master the beloved homemade french fry, it will take some work but I consider this the beginning of a quest, a culinary journey to make the perfect fry. I have no disillusions that mine will ever top McDonald's, the greatest french fries the world has ever consumed, but something that comes close.

Eat well, cook often ...

2 Idaho potatoes, cut into french fries
1 quart of oil

Cover potatoes with water in a pot. Bring to a boil and cook through, 8 to 10 minutes. (This may vary according to the size the fries are cut into) Drain and let cool to room temperature. Heat oil to 375° in a large pot. Fry potatoes in batches until golden brown and crispy 4 to 5 minutes.  Remove to a paper towel lined plate or bowl. Immediately season with salt to taste. Let cool slightly, then serve.

Country Fired Chicken with Pepper Gravy

What do you do when you get home from a luau featuring a limbo contest and a surf-thrash band?

Make a batch of country-fried chicken and a side of pepper gravy is what you do!

That's what I did anyway.

I've been out and about in Austin lately feeling out the music scene in search of some like-minded musicians. Saturday was one of those nights. After a couple hours hanging with the head-banging beach crowd at Hole in the Wall club near the UT campus I decided it was time to get home and make a snack. I had eaten a huge breakfast plate for what normal people consider a late lunch/early dinner in the afternoon and wasn't really hungry before heading to the luau. By midnight I was ready for some grub.

I was planning to save the majority of the chicken for lunch the next day and just have a couple strips for a late night snack to tide me over until morning. After sampling a strip dipped in the gravy I couldn't resist though and just kept going back – I was like a moth to a flame. All told, I destroyed six of the 10 strips I made and a good amount of the pepper gravy.

There are two keys to making this dish.

Great breading and tasty gravy.

Knowing how to whip up a gravy as a side compliment to the main event is really the difference between putting out good food and great food. It takes a minimal amount of practice and adds some heavy artillery to any cook's culinary arsenal. Here it was key. The breading on the chicken was just how it was supposed to be, but the gravy, Oooooh that gravy! Peppery, garlicy and absolutely the bomb – that's what kept me going back.

Surf-thrash, limbo and country fried chicken with ridiculous pepper gravy. Not the perfect Saturday night, but a good one none the less.

Eat well, cook often ...

2 Chicken breast, cut into even strips
2 C Buttermilk
1/2 Onion, finely diced
2 cloves Garlic, minced
2 Tbs AP flour
2 C milk
1 Tbs fresh crack black pepper
2 eggs
2 Tbs water
2 Tbs Hot sauce
1 1/2 C AP flour
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
Oil for frying

In a large bowl submerge chicken in buttermilk, cover and place in refrigerator. Let marinate at least one hour.

In a small pan over medium heat, saute onion in melted butter until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Add garlic, cook one minute, or until fragrant. Stir in flour until completely absorbed by butter. Let cook three minutes or until slightly brown in color. Stir in milk. Bring to a boil and let thicken. Remove from heat and keep warm until serving.

In a large pot heat enough oil to submerge chicken strips to 350°.

While oil is coming to temperature set up breading stations. In one pan or bowl beat together eggs, water and hot sauce. In a second pan or bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Remove chicken from buttermilk and let drain. Coat in egg mixture then dredge in flour until completely coated. Place in oil until cooked through and golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from oil and drain.

Serve chicken with gravy for dipping.

Cheesy Beef Rotini

Pasta and cheese go together like yin and yang. Add ground beef and you get shamalama ding dang!

I bought a 3-pound package of ground beef on sale that I divided for three meals. The first of which was this scatch-made, hamburger-helper-esk pot of yummy goodness. I made this for dinner and two meals throughout the week but it will easily feed a family of four.

This is a very straight forward recipe with one element that needs special attention - the sauce.  The key to it is patience.

I use a roux made from the drippings of the ground beef as the base. Let the flour and fat cook together with the mirepoix for a couple minutes before adding the milk. It should turn a little browner during the process. The flour and fat need the heat to change chemically to become a thickener. Then add the milk and let the mixture simmer until it's noticeably thicker. Finally, add the cheese a little at a time and make sure it's completely melted before adding more. Nailing this processes will make this simple, kid-friendly meal a hit with everyone.

That's some Shamalama ding dang!

Eat well, cook often ...

Serves 4, 30 minutes
1 lb. Ground beef (73/27)
1 Onion, diced
1 Green pepper, diced
1 clove Garlic, minced
2 Tbs Flour
2 C milk
2 C Monterrey jack cheese, shredded
8 oz Rotini pasta

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain set aside.

In a 4 quart pot over medium heat, brown ground beef. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove to bowl with slotted spoon, set aside. In beef drippings saute onion and green pepper until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Add garlic, cook until fragrant, 1 minute.

Stir in flour, let cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in milk and simmer until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add cheese a handful at a time, stir until melted, repeat until cheese is gone. Return beef to mixture and add rotini. Heat through, then serve.

Eggs over easy

I can plate up some mean biscuits and gravy, pancakes, frittatas, omelets and many other breakfast favorites but I had never been any good at making a fried egg over easy. Broken yolks and a glob of egg is how they usually ended up — which in turn would become scrambled eggs.

One of my goals in the kitchen over the last few months has been getting better at eggs over easy, so basically, I have made 2 of them for myself nearly every Saturday and Sunday since February. I might not be able to make them like Bobby Flay at this point, but I have learned to plate up a quality "dip" egg with a nice runny yolk and beautiful whites that feature tiny flecks of pepper.

The secret to a nice egg over easy? A thin, metal spatula.

I'm sure there are armies of people who use thick-plastic spatulas sold in big box-store bundles that turn out wonderful eggs, but for me, the right equipment was essential to get the eggs I wanted every time. The right spatula allows me to get under the egg for the flip in a nice quick thrust, once its on the spatula, turning it over is a breeze. It's the getting under it part that would always screw me up.

Two eggs over easy served on a hash brown with bacon and toast is morning bliss. That's what my Mom would often cook for us on weekends growing up. The eggs were holding me back from making it a breakfast staple for myself and whoever I cook for — but I can proudly say "not any more."

It took about 86 fried eggs to get it right. Sometimes you just have to be committed.

If you're in the Austin area on a given weekend morning — stop by — I'll make you some eggs over easy to get the day going.

Eat well, cook often ...

Nacho Cheesy Rice

I enjoy making dishes like this for work during the week. It stores well and reheats nicely in the microwave, but most importantly, it really is a tasty dish. I can eat it like a dip with tortilla chips or garnish with chili flavored corn chips for texture. The rice helps make this stretch to 3 or 4 servings and only a pound of ground beef is used.

I like to make a cheese sauce in dishes like this because it stays in a more liquid or gravy-like form after it cools. Its much easier to reheat and return to the creamy texture when eating as a left over. Just throwing shredded cheese in a dish like this is great if you're eating it hot, but it clumps back together once it cools. The sauce route is much better if left overs are part of the plan - which is the case for almost everything I make.

Eat well, cook often ...

Nacho Cheesy Rice
1 lb ground beef
2 Tbs unsalted butter
2 jalapenos, seeded, diced
1/2 onion, dice (1C)
1 Tbs chile powder
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1 tsp garlic, minced
2 Tbs flour
2 C milk
2 C pepper jack cheese, shredded
2C cooked rice
Chili flavored corn chips for garnish

In a large pan or pot brown ground beef over medium heat. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove to paper-towel lined plate with a slotted spoon. Add butter to drippings in pan, once melted saute onion and jalepeno until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Add spices and garlic, cook until fragrant, a minute or two. Return ground beef to pan, stir into mixture. Add flour, mix in to absorb liquid, stir and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in milk. Bring to simmer and let thicken slightly. Add cheese 2 tbs at a time, stir constantly and let melt completely, then add more cheese. Repeat until cheese is gone. Stir in Rice. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, then serve. Garnish with chili corn chips.

Friday Night, Taco Night

Fresh corn tortilla, steak, cilantro and onion with chipotle ranch sauce.

Friday dinner is reserved for tacos.

When I first moved to Austin I set aside Friday nights to hit new taco joints in search of the ultimate taco. I didn't find the ultimate, but I did find the elements to creating one. I'm still searching and creating on my own for that perfect bite, but here is what I learned so far:

Fresh made tortillas are a must!

The protein or meat element must be perfectly cooked and if its seasoned, the seasoning must compliment the sauce.

I'm partial to limited garnish: just a little cilantro and onion go along way. Lettuce, tomato and maybe a little cheese are good, but also in limited quantities and I reserve the latter for just crunchy style tacos. For me it about the tortilla, meat and sauce ...

THE SAUCE -  it makes the taco! Different sauces make for entirely different meals. Mixing and matching the right sauce with the perfect protein is the secret to a great taco experience.

As I write this I can feel the slight burn of the chipotle ranch sauce that adorns the steak taco above. It helped this simple treat become a savory, smoky bite. Its creaminess meshed perfectly with warm tortilla - which I can still feel the masa in the ridges of my finger prints from making them fresh. Call me crazy - but I love that feeling!

The ultimate taco? No. But, a tasty treat indeed.

Eat, well cook often ...

Find the recipe for the chipolte ranch sauce here.

My snack tonight

Fresh made corn tortilla, chorizo, cumin crusted pork, refried beans and red onion — drizzled with a chipotle ranch sauce — a tasty treat indeed!

A little snack thrown together with odds and ends left over from weekend experiments.

Decided to snap a shot. Scrumptious!

The sauce recipe:

1 C buttermilk
1 packed Ranch dressing mix
1/4 C mayo
1/4 C sour cream
3 whole chipotle peppers with some adobo sauce.
1 clove garlic
Handfull of cilantro
S&P to taste

With blades running in a blender, drop clove of garlic in to finely mince. Add the rest of the ingedients, blend until smooth, 5 or 6 minutes. Scrape down sides once halfway through the blending process. Transfer to squeeze bottle or container and refrigerate at least one hour for flavors to meld, then serve.

Eat well, cook often

A new adventure has begun

I'm just getting settled in Austin, Texas!

A great opportunity has come my way and for the second time in my life, I decided to pull up stakes and leave the comforts of the Midwest and Northern Indiana.

I packed up my place outside Chicago. Spent the holidays with my family. Then loaded a 20-foot U-haul and took off for Texas with my car in tow. Two days and 180 gallons of gas later, I rolled into town and have been soaking it in ever since.

I didn't have to wait for the warmth of spring this year, I drove right to it. Austin has had beautiful weather since I arrived and the natives tell me that it has been a warmer winter than usual.

The spirit of the people here reminds me of the spirit you find in New York City, just slightly slower moving and not as consumed with grift. I'm still brand new to this place but I have to admit, something feels really right about this move. I can't predict the future but I have to say - so far, so good.

As the number of boxes to unpack diminishes, the more normal things I get to do. Normal things, like sharing a post here at the blog, are starting to blossom — Just like the plants and trees outside my door.

Eat well, cook often ...