God, what a year. I wish I could share some neat, precisely turned summary of everything that’s happened since I last blogged here in April. My head is a stew pot these days, full to the brim with this and that, and I’ve been trying to simmer it all together into a coherent something for months now.
On a personal scale, things have taken a happy turn towards domesticity. Sam and I got engaged in March and courthouse-married in September. We’re planning a big family-and-friends wedding for next summer (don’t ask how that’s going). We bought a townhouse–I still can’t quite believe we bought a townhouse–and moved in at the beginning of November. And we adopted a cat, who as I type this is draped full-length across my lap, purring his glossy black head off.
Meanwhile, of course, the world around us swerved in a scary direction. Our personal happiness has been complicated by fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. I was mostly holding it together until the night of the US elections, but the result of the presidential race cracked me wide open. I’ve made my political opinions clear on this blog before, and what happened on November 8th was the worst of a worst-case scenario. It also exposed some fraying ends in my mental health that I’d been trying to ignore for a while. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent the past month and a half relying on a mix of therapy and home-grown self-care to keep afloat.
As usual for me, the home-grown self-care includes lots of cooking in our new kitchen. The weekend after the election, we invited friends over and fed them lasagna. I’ve been batch cooking and freezing lots of kitchen-sink stuff–soups, stews, and casseroles. And I got fancy one night and baked some chili in a pumpkin, a warming seasonal treat for Sam and me. This isn’t going to resolve the topsy-turviness of the world, but it’s nourishing, absorbing, and even kind of fun–just what I need these days.
This chili started with a not-so-spectacular sugar pumpkin. It arrived in our CSA, cute as a button, and I could tell as soon as I picked it up that it wasn’t a winner. It felt light for its size, and a good pumpkin should feel heavy. When I roasted and pureed it, my instincts were confirmed: the flesh was starchy rather than sweet, and the pumpkin flavor was muted. I’d been planning to make pie, but I knew at first taste it’d be a dud.
Still, the puree had some of the lovely earthiness I expect from freshly roasted pumpkin. What about a savory use? I’d been to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival a couple weeks before and tried pumpkin chili for the first time. For something sold out of a concession tent in a styrofoam bowl, it was pretty good–the pumpkin made a nice match for the beany warmth of the chili. But I wished with every spoonful that it was spicier, gutsier, more like my favorite bean chili. So when I found myself with a batch of boring pumpkin puree, I decided to try marrying the two chilis.
If it’s possible, I think I like this version even better than the original I based it on. The pumpkin gives the whole thing some backbone, adding sweetness and depth to balance the intense smoky heat. It also helps thicken the chili, creating a rich gravy-like sauce. The chili is ready after as little as an hour of simmering, but if you have the time, let it go for closer to three hours–the long simmer really takes the flavor from good to glorious. The whole thing is wonderfully rib-sticking, perfect for chilly nights like the ones we’ve been having in the Bay Area recently.
This is fabulous with any kind of pumpkin, homemade or canned. I know I’m not the only one to end up with a bland roasted pumpkin, and this is the perfect use for less-than-stellar puree. I ended up adding a bit of sugar at the end to compensate for the lack of sweetness in my pumpkin; this is totally a taste-and-adjust situation. Or you could just use canned puree, which provides plenty of sweetness and makes this a meal you could whip up from the pantry.
I’m normally pretty bad at resisting the lure of processed food. (I’m currently typing this blog post with one hand and eating honey mustard pretzels with the other.) But there is one consistent exception. One of my favorite food websites, The Kitchn, recently ran a blog post titled “How My Freezer Replaces Canned Soups.” I read it and found myself nodding vigorously the whole time. I may be pretty lazy most days, but I’ve pretty much stopped trying to convince myself that a can of soup is a satisfying dinner. It’s freezer soup all the way these days.
I’ve written about this before–how I love stocking my freezer with the building blocks of meals. It’s a habit I got into when I was living alone, working long days and commuting over an hour each way. At any given point, my freezer usually has some homemade chicken or turkey stock; a couple different kinds of soup, stew, or curry; and a double batch of tomato sauce. (Lately I’ve been adding little containers of sweet potato filling to my stash as well.) If I remember, I’ll take a portion out of the freezer the night before I want to eat it and let it partially thaw in the fridge; if I forget, I’ll run hot tap water over the frozen container just until the contents release from the sides. It takes nearly as little time to reheat frozen soup as canned, and it’s just as quick to eat.
This is the point at which my boyfriend would accuse me of being philosophically opposed to canned soup, and claim that I’m judging him when he chooses to eat it. That’s really not it at all, though; if it works for Sam as a quick and filling meal, then I’ll happily keep cans of his favorite soups in the house. But for me, canned soup no longer really registers as food. When I eat a can of soup for dinner, I’m never really full afterward; my body doesn’t seem to register it as a meal, and I find myself hungry again in less than an hour. It’s just so much more filling and satisfying to eat something I made myself and tailored to my own tastes.
This chili is a great example. I’ve had bean chili out of a can more times than I can count, and most of the time it’s perfectly okay. But to have my very own three-bean chili squirreled away means I’ll actually enjoy the meal when I heat it up. This is a chili made to my specifications: smoky and brick-red, studded with chunks of sweet potato and shot through with enough heat to make my nose run. I froze some leftover cornbread alongside, so that I could have a wedge of something crumbly to stick in my bowl. I also love adding some big chunks of avocado and a scattering of scallions on top, for buttery smoothness and oniony crunch. But even without the extra toppings–even just scraped out of a freezer container and microwaved–this chili is miles away from the stuff in the can.
Here’s an easy one for Cinco de Mayo: chili-lime shrimp.
Not much to it, really. Start with big shrimp, shell-on but deveined. Mix a simple marinade of lime juice, chili flakes, garlic, and scallion. Let the shrimp mingle with the marinade for a few minutes, just long enough for the lime juice to penetrate the meat without turning it ceviche-mushy. Cook. Eat, preferably with fingers. It’s one of those deeply satisfying party foods, a reminder of how much shrimp and chili and lime adore each other.
I’ve recently gotten into cooking shrimp with the shells still on. There’s an obvious flavor boost, for one thing–the shells make the shrimp taste sweeter and sharper and altogether shrimpier, and they help hold some of the marinade against the surface of the meat. The shells also protect the delicate flesh, keeping it tender and moist and preventing the surface from picking up that odd rubbery stiffness. The shells are edible, if they’re cooked right–lightly charred and crisp all over, giving the shrimp a light papery crunch. But even if you overcrowd your shrimp, like I did, and end up with floppy pink shells, you can just peel the shrimp as you eat them, licking the marinade from your fingers as you go. The shrimp will still taste better than if the shells were never there.
Once the shrimp are marinated–if you can even call it that–there are a couple ways to cook them. Here in California, where we’ve been sweating through an August-strength heat wave, grilling is the obvious choice. Just wiggle the shrimp onto skewers, slap them on a moderate-hot grill, and serve with plenty of cold Mexican beer. In other places, where I’ve heard tell there’s still snow, grab a cast iron skillet and sear the shrimp over medium heat, then mix up a pitcher of margaritas and pretend you’re somewhere warm. Eating chili-lime shrimp will make that much easier.
Jet lag is a cruel mistress. After two weeks on Eastern Standard Time, I’m having serious trouble clicking back over. For the past three days I’ve been crawling through the early evening, passing out as soon as it’s seemly, then bolting wide awake in the wee hours. It’s a grinding adjustment, as always, and I’ve been alternating between manic bursts of energy and limb-dragging bouts of inertia.
I missed my little kitchen terribly, but I haven’t had the follow-through to do more than the simplest of cooking projects. Like this one, borrowed from Bon Appetit: shrimp sauteed in Sriracha-spiked butter, with a splash of lemon and a shower of basil and mint. It’s spicy, but not overly so; the butter rounds out the rough edges of the hot sauce, and the herbs give it an unexpected sniff of sophistication. The whole thing comes together in a whopping 10 minutes–15, if you peel your own shrimp.
This is a dish that sauces itself. The shrimp as they cook give off a burst of liquid that mixes with the chili-infused butter and the lemon juice to form a rich lipstick-red slick in the bottom of the pan. I served the shrimp over soba noodles, to catch all of those wonderful fatty-spicy juices; the original recipe suggests a mound of steamed artichokes. I’m convinced this would be just as great over rice, quinoa, couscous, spaghetti squash, or any sauteed vegetable you like–just make sure you catch every last bit of sauce. I wished I had bread to swab out the pan.
Oh, and a confession: despite my overwhelming love of Sriracha, I had none on hand when I made this. So I used the dregs from a jar of chili garlic sauce, and the shrimp came out terrific. Darned pretty, too.
I went hiking yesterday. Today, I HURT.
I didn’t realize it was possible to be this sore after wandering in the woods for a couple hours. Everything from my waist down hurts. My stomach and my thighs and my bottom and my calves are whining at me every time I move. I’m one blog post away from collapsing into bed and sleeping the deep sleep of the overexerted. Clearly, I overestimated myself in just about every way.
Except one. I’m not letting myself get discouraged this time.
So let’s get this out of the way, right here, right now. This is a post about chili. But not the old-school kind of chili. Not the kind of chili you put on a chili dog. Not the kind of chili that, when I was in college, I used to slop over fries and drench with nacho sauce and call it dinner. (I am shamed.) Oh, no, this is not your generic tomato-red, capsaicin-swimming, orange-grease-slicked Amurrican chili. If I ever enter this chili in a cookoff, they’ll almost certainly ride me out of town on a rail.
There are about a million and one traditional chili recipes out there in the ether, all more or less the same. What I’m after is none of them. I want chili that demands nothing but a bowl and a spoon and a sprinkle of cheese, that fills to the ribs without coalescing into a belly-brick. I want incongruous meats and funky textures, toothsome chunks of vegetation, beans of all different sizes. And I want something so far beyond the pale that it hardly qualifies as chili at all. My signature chili is absolutely killer, but it’s also miles away from tradition. It’s almost–dare I say it–un-American.
So here’s the proof. I’m done. Haul me away and lock me up. I surrender.