Saturday, August 28, 2021

Best Damn Chili in the State

My favorite part of my favorite movie, The Blues Brothers, is when John Belushi is in Aretha Franklin's restaurant and he asks her, "Got any fried chicken?" Upon which she puts her hand on her hip, gives him the hairy eyeball, and says - like a boss - "Best damn chicken in the state." 

Well, I make the best damn chili in the state. True, I live in Illinois. But in my younger days I had fantasies of travelling down to Terlingua,Texas for the Great Chili Cook-off, where I would cook up a batch of my fabulous chili, wearing a prom dress, and walk off with first prize. In stilettos. 

(Nowadays I would rather set my head on fire than travel to Texas. Unless I was invited. By Willie Nelson. And promised a lot of weed. Then, maybe.)

But back to the chili. This recipe is my own invention, and here's the story.

It all started with my Sausage and Mushroom Sauce. Easy, peasy. Some hot Italian sausage, some mushrooms, canned tomatoes. A little olive oil, salt and pepper. Maybe a dash of oregano, but really - and this is the secret - the sausage seasons the sauce. Perfectly. I've even made this sauce with that plant-fake Italian sausage, and you know? It wasn't bad.

So, one day I was thinking: If sausage can season this sauce, could chorizo season chili? Like, make the beans, add the tomatoes, and just throw in some fried chorizo?

Yup. And a star was born.

Let me tell you a few things about chorizo before I give you the recipe. I'm talking about Mexican chorizo as opposed to Spanish chorizo, which is a different thing altogether. Mexican chorizo, at least the stuff I use, comes in a 13 oz. package, and it's two plastic-wrapped tubes of loose sausage. You take off the outer packaging, snip the tubes at one end and down the sides a bit, and peel off the plastic. Then fry the chorizo in some hot olive oil, breaking it up with a fork. I use Supremo Beef Chorizo Original Picante. (Picante = Spicy, but it also comes in mild, for big babies.) There's a pork version of this chorizo, too, if you prefer.

Chorizo Chili
Red beans, 1 lb. bag
Italian plum tomatoes, 1 28oz or 32oz can
A little olive oil
Mexican chorizo 
Salt, pepper, oregano (optional)

In a big pot, cook the red beans according to package directions. When they're done, pour off some of the liquid, but not all of it because it's good stuff and you don't want your chili to get too thick. Add a big can of Italian tomatoes and let them simmer with the beans until the tomatoes get soft. Smash up the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon, and keep simmering. Fry the chorizo in a cast iron pan with little olive oil until it's very brown. Add the fried chorizo to the tomatoes and beans. Keep simmering for at least an hour. The longer the chorizo cooks with the tomatoes and beans, the better your chili will taste. At the end, you can add salt, pepper, and oregano, but taste the chili first to see if it needs it.

Serve with sour cream (I use Greek yogurt) and shredded cheese. Guacamole and/or cornbread are nice sides. 

And tell Willy I'm waiting.




Thursday, July 29, 2021

Would You Like a Drink Before the War?

Remember Fawlty Towers? The episode with the German tourists? The one where Basil Fawlty told his staff something like, "Whatever you do, don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it,"? Mr. Fawlty's behavior was (mostly) on account of a traumatic brain injury, the result of being beaned by some taxidermist's masterpiece of a severed moose head. 

I have a different sort of traumatic injury, on account of The Pandemic (you know the one).

I'm going to mention The Pandemic just this once, and I promise I'll never mention it again. But I'm doing this for your own good, to save you a trip to the eye doctor. Because he's only going to think you're crazy and then (to cover his ass) send you to a very expensive specialist. But believe me, this is for real, and I might be saving you a lot of money and negative speculation about your sanity. Which will wind up on your permanent record.

My traumatic injury wasn't caused by Covid per se. It was actually a side effect of spending a ridiculous (and apparently dangerous) amount of time in lockdown with my husband.

Let's call it Anthony's Syndrome. 

If you're new to this blog, or in case you didn't read my first book, my husband's name is Anthony. (Now go buy my first book. You won't be sorry.) Here's what happened: I was bending down to get some flour out of a cabinet, and then all of a sudden, YOWZA! I got this stabbing pain in my right eye socket.

I reacted like I usually do when faced with fresh hell of any sort: I panicked. Was my retina detaching? Did I have a stroke? A tumor? Expired mascara?

Anyway, it stopped. But I remained wary. A few days later, it happened again. And then a few days after that, again. And then in the other eye, too. I thought about going to the doctor, but my eyes looked okay and I wasn't having any vision changes, and I hate going to doctors above all things, especially during a pandemic. So I decided to try to come up with my own diagnosis.

Which I did. Finally, after weeks of careful observation and analysis, I came to the conclusion that I had injured my eye muscles due to repetitive eye rolling due to my husband's repetitive goofiness.

You live and learn.

The cure was to consciously stop rolling my eyes. Not easy. I tried heaving deep, exasperated sighs instead. Out of earshot, of course. A sort of Sicilian housewife riff on yoga breathing. 

It wasn't enough, though. Being Sicilian, my preferred stress buster is cold, hard revenge. In the case of my husband Anthony, the best revenge is to deny him soup. For a whole week. No explanations, no apologies. Let him wonder.

Time for some red meat. Beef tenderloin, the way my father-in-law made it in his restaurant. Fast, easy, and full of aggression.

Beef Tenderloin
Beef tenderloin steaks, 2 
Mushrooms
Olive oil
Butter
Salt and pepper

Wash and slice some mushrooms. Sauté them in olive oil and a pat of butter. Add salt and pepper. Turn the heat down to very low to keep the mushrooms hot. Take your steaks and slice them in half, horizontally, so that you have four thin steaks. Heat up a little olive oil in a big cast iron pan and flash fry them. Stick the pan in a 350 degree oven until the steaks are done (more or less pink in the middle, however you like). Pour the mushrooms over steaks, and serve. I recommend a salad and wild rice on the side. And don't forget the wine. It's how Italians turn red meat into health food. 

And I read somewhere that it's good for your eyes.



 


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Oh, Baby

So this is what Italian American geezers do for fun.

The last time my husband and I were at our usual grocery store, he couldn't find a box of Wheaties and I couldn't find a decent potato.  And that's just for starters.  They were also out of chicken thighs and lemons.

Really???

Actually, I saw this coming.  Once, maybe about two years ago, they were out of garlic.  Garlic.  Garlic???  Garlic!  And this in a gigantic grocery store with an Italian person's name on the sign.  A few weeks later, I heard that the Italian person had sold out to some big national chain.  Like I shoulda guessed.

PLUS, they fired the piano player and all the baggers.  The piano player was a nice touch.  And I guess you don't need baggers, if your cashiers don't mind being overworked.  This is bad management.  Don't explain it to me; I used to be in retail.  You jadrools think you're a big success because you're making "plan".  I know that you're working for Mussolini.  In bocca al lupo.

Anyway, it was time to explore greener pastures.  So we went exploring, the details of which I'll spare you.  Let's just say that if you want to buy a decent shampoo and kale's really not your thing, you've got to go to at least two different places to do your weekly shopping.  Which was something that didn't make me happy.  Our usual grocery store used to have all those bases covered.  It's hard to break up with a grocery store.

What did make me happy were the baby eggplants I found.

They were adorable.  I have this thing - and this only happens with produce - where I fall madly in love with some particular form of  edible flora at the grocery store, and I take it home without any idea of what I'm going to do with it.  And then I forget all about it, until my husband says, "Are you going to do something with this (eggplant?  cauliflower?  cucuzzi?)"  Hey, Mr. Organized, did you finish that 5 lb. chocolate bar you bought last week?

I had to figure out what to do with the baby eggplants.  And my cooking is considerably lazier these days, so no way I was gonna do Parmesan.  You know, with eggplant you're supposed to salt it and press it and maybe peel it and whatever.

Yeah.  Screw that.  Here's what I did instead:

Baby Eggplant Medallions/Chips

Take some baby eggplant, however many your want, and scrub them.  Cut off the ends.  Then slice up the eggplant into slices about a half-an-inch thick.  Lengthwise, crosswise, it doesn't matter.  Lay the slices of eggplant flat in a well-oiled pan (olive oil, and line the pan with foil first, you'll thank me), and sprinkle salt all over them.  Then, with your hands, spread more olive oil all over the tops of the slices.  Don't be stingy.  Sprinkle with whole wheat panko bread crumbs and then some pecorino cheese.  Pepper to taste.  Bake in a 350 degree oven until soft and a little brown (about 20 minutes to a half hour) for medallions, or until crispy (about 45 minutes to an hour) for chips.  Your nose will tell you.  Watch them to make sure they don't burn.

A glass of wine and a plate of eggplant chips.  And maybe The Godfather, Part I, on DVD.  La dolce vita.  This is definitely the beginning of a beautiful relationship.







Tuesday, July 16, 2019

In Memoriam

My cousin Vita's Aunt Connie died.

I should tell you that my cousin Vita is only my cousin in the Sicilian sense of the word:  a very close friend usually of the Sicilian persuasion whose family has known your family for at least three generations and whose house you can sleep at, whenever you want.  And who talks you down from the tree when your parents/husband/kids get on your last nerve.  Who knows the name of your high school boyfriend.  And who drags you away from a fist fight in a parking lot with a hillbilly who has a gun (we can laugh about it now).

So...more than a friend, and probably related since Sicilians have been cross-breeding on that island since the beginning of time.

At any rate, Aunt Connie - who I'm not technically related to, but vaguely remember - died last week at age 97,  Not unusual for a Sicilian; we eat well.  It's a bit of a ghost story.  Vita hadn't seen or heard from that side of her family in decades, when all of a sudden she recently had a few "chance" encounters with various members.  And on the day of the fateful event, Vita woke up at 4:00 am and her first thought was, "Aunt Connie died."  True story.  Also not unusual for a Sicilian.  Sicilian women have "the sight", which makes us way scarier than Sicilian men, who only have the Mafia.

I want to pay tribute to Aunt Connie, whose name I proudly share.  So I asked Vita, did your Aunt Connie have a dish she was famous for?  And Vita said that she remembered her Aunt Connie's tuna meatballs.

Which takes me back to my childhood, and Fridays at my grandmother's.

I am old enough, and Catholic enough, to remember not eating meat on Fridays.  Or the 40 days of Lent, for that matter.  And while all the Irish kids in the parish were eating fish sticks and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Sicilian kids were eating tuna meatballs.  Try them and tell me who you think got the better deal.


Aunt Connie's Tuna Meatballs
Take two big cans of tuna, the kind packed in olive oil.  Drain off most of the olive oil and put the tuna in a big bowl.  Add two eggs, salt and pepper, about 2 TBL of parsley, and enough bread crumbs to make it all hang together, about a cup.  Mix well with your hands.  Form the tuna mixture into balls (add more breadcrumbs if you need to) and fry them in olive oil until very brown.  Drain the fried balls on a paper towel.  

Lock the cats in a bedroom.

Since I mentioned it, I'd like to take this opportunity say a few words about Lent.  Lent is possibly the best idea the Catholic Church ever came up with.  It lets you veg out after Christmas for a month-and-a-half and then WHAM! Throws you a party, and then the next day puts ashes on your forehead and makes you go on a diet.  No red meat or candy for 40 days, at the end of which you're ten pounds lighter, you get an Easter basket, and you can wear white shoes.  

What's not to love here?






Friday, June 7, 2019

Four Ingredients

Here's another sauce that you could make even if you were in a coma.  Or if you had a bambino on your hip, one holding on to your leg, and your father-in-law sitting at the kitchen table in his boxer shorts telling you what you were doing wrong.  (Obviously, I'm acquainted with this situation, as are most Italian women.  I don't think there's any kind of government legislation that could be proposed to change it.)

This sauce is rich, spicy, and visually dazzling.  And it has four ingredients.  Count 'em: four.  It's supposed to be served over polenta, but Sicilians don't eat polenta so I serve it over penne.  You can serve it over anything you want.  My alien husband Anthony puts it over yogurt and eats it for breakfast, which is even more proof of his extraterrestrial origins.


Sausage and Mushroom Sauce
Put two large cans of peeled Italian tomatoes into a big pot and bring to a simmer.  Cut up 2 lbs. of hot Italian sausage into little pieces and fry them in some olive oil in a big cast iron pan.  DO NOT DRAIN.  Add the fried sausage to the pot of tomatoes.  NOW - and this is magic! - fry a big bunch of sliced mushrooms in the sausage drippings (add a little olive oil if you need to).  Not only will the sausage dripping make your mushrooms taste like heaven, but the mushrooms will clean the sausage stuff off the pan.  No kidding.  It's why I like to make this sauce, I like magic food.  Add the mushrooms to the tomatoes and sausage, and simmer until the tomatoes get super soft and you can break them up with your wooden spoon.  At the risk of sounding passive/aggressive, I'd say about two hours.

Taste the sauce.  If it needs salt, add salt. 

Then you'll have five ingredients.  Oh, well.  Break up the tomatoes and serve.