I’ve been barbecuing all my adult life. I don’t claim to be a grillmaster. I haven’t made a study of scientifically optimized barbecuing techniques. But I can usually get pretty good results. I’ve always been a traditionalist about it, only using charcoal, and always owning a primitive grill. I had a L’il Smokey in college. I had a tiny thing that fit in a backpack when I lived in Japan. Since then, I’ve always had one of those converted 55-gallon drums. I always felt that part of the fun of grilling was the unpredictability—that each time I got good results in spite of the lack of control, it was a small triumph over chaos, and my ability to get good results was evidence of some inarticulable talent.
It turns out that this represented one of those unexamined assumptions that turns out to be wrong.
The bottoms on those drum grills eventually rust out completely, so I’d wind up replacing them every few years. After the last one was gone, Gwen decided it was time for something different. She knew that charcoal grilling tastes better, but she also knew that gas grilling was more convenient, and can be a better-tasting option than stovetop cooling. She picked out a two-way grill, with gas in the left barrel and charcoal in the right. It was on sale at the big-box store, and we bought it. This is not something I would have picked out for myself—the charcoal side alone is fancier than any of those drum grills I’ve owned. And I felt a bit odd about allowing a propane grill into the household, even though I can avoid using it if I want.
We took the grill on its maiden voyage yesterday, and it immediately proved itself to be vastly superior to any grill I’ve owned before. To hell with triumph over chaos and inarticulable talent. I’ll stick with convenience, predictability, and control from now on. At least when it comes to grilling.
For the past four years, I’ve been making chili for a new year’s day party, a tradition I borrowed from my mom. Every year I’ve varied the recipe a little, and I think this year’s batch was the best yet. I am documenting what I did here.
I’ve always used the Pedernales River Chili recipe as my starting point. This year I also consulted The New Best Recipe, an excellent cookbook with a recipe for Texas-style chili that looks very respectable.
This is a very large recipe. Most chili con carne recipes start with 4 lb of beef, so scale accordingly.
- 9 lb chuck roast. It should be no surprise that the cut of beef makes a big difference in the quality of the final product. I’ve tried stew meat and it’s nowhere near as good. I also don’t care for chili based on ground beef (leaving aside the potential food-safety issues with that).
- 2 large onions.
- 3 cans diced tomato.
- 18 tbsp chili powder. New Best Recipe observes that 2 tbsp of chili powder per pound of beef seems about right, and I agree. Speaking as someone who likes spicy food and has a reasonably good tolerance for spice, I’d describe the level of spiciness as a mild slap: enough to get your attention, but not enough to slow you down. Central Market has an outstanding selection of chili powder in bulk, and I probably spent 10 minutes sniffing at different jars. I brought home both New Mexico chili powder and House Blend. Gila Flats also seems like a good candidate. I wound up using about 10 tbsp of the New Mexico, 5 of the House Blend, 2 of ancho, and 1 of chipotle.
- 4 tbsp cumin seed. As per New Best Recipe, I toasted this in a dry pan first. Actually, I only had about 2 tbsp and wound up adding cumin powder to compensate.
- 4 tbsp dried oregano
- 3 cups water. This is a very dry recipe. Partly out of necessity: I was running out of room in my stewpot.
- Cube the chuck roast into roughly 1″ chunks.
- Chop the onion coarsely.
- In a large stewpot, brown the chuck roast in small batches and set aside.
- Sautee the onions in the stewpot with the beef fat, adding oil as needed.
- Add all the spices to the onions and continue sauteing for a minute.
- Return the beef to the stewpot and add the canned tomato and water. Add a few dashes of hot sauce. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer while covered.
- After about 2 hours on the stove, the flavor wasn’t didn’t seem properly rounded out, so we added over a tablespoon of salt. That helped but didn’t quite do it either, so we added a tablespoon of cocoa powder, which did the trick. The chocolate turned out to be the magic ingredient.
- Continue simmering for a couple hours, store the whole pot in refrigerator overnight, reheat the next day for serving. At no point did I skim the fat off.
People seem to be interested in this, so here’s how to make it.
- Take one bundle of cilantro and cut off the stemmiest parts. Chop coarsely into smaller bundles.
- Juice four limes.
- Peel a fat chunk of ginger about one inch long and chop coarsely. Enough to fill the palm of one’s hand.
- Take one or two jalapeños (depending on intensity) and cut off the stems.
- Throw all this in a blender and puree. See if you need that second jalapeño. Add about a tablespoon of oil and salt to taste. Run the blender for a few more seconds.
This is especially good on fish or shrimp, but will work on just about anything. We typically pan-fry some kind of white fish, pour the sauce over it when it’s about halfway done, let it cook in the sauce for a while, and serve over rice.