Monday, 30 January 2012

Beef Chili with Jalapeno Cornbread

When I was younger my parents had a cookbook called 'A Dinner a Day: Complete Meals for Every Weeknight of the Year' which, for a few short weeks we followed fanatically. It was a fantastic concept for family on-the-go; at the start of every week you bought the listed ingredients, stuck the menu on the fridge, and essentially cooked what the book told you to cook, each day a new meal, for the entire calendar year. The whole thing worked brilliantly for a little while, but we soon noticed the fatal flaw in the design - what do you do when you really love a recipe? Whether it be spaghetti bolognese, bangers and mash, or even a lovingly prepared beans on toast, there are some comfort foods that you simply cannot go much longer than a fortnight without enjoying. For my family, it's always been a good chili, and we were damned if we were going to let some book dictate the one day out of 365 when we could be cowboys. So we took the sensible route, held an intervention with ourselves, burned the book*, stuck patches on our arms and decided to go off-piste instead. I'm glad we did, because chili sure tastes good. (*it's still on the shelf in my parents' kitchen - don't burn books)
Chili is a very difficult thing to get wrong but, in my opinion, equally difficult to get dead right. It's something that I've been trying to perfect over a decade of cooking and I'm only now just about absolutely satisfied with my recipe. I've found, if you want to make that perfect chili, the one that doesn't just satisfy but actually wows people then you need three crucial elements; good meat, good chilis, and a good few hours. Once you've got that trifecta in your back pocket you can't go wrong, everything else just falls into place. 
As it is with 95% of the meals I cook, start off with a chopped onion and a few cloves of minced garlic softened in a bit of oil. Ditch the mince and go in with a couple of lightly floured stewing steaks - sear on both sides before hitting the pot with your spices.
At this point, it's a bit of a free-for-all and everyone has their own blend of herbs and spices they use, quite often dependent on what's sitting in the cupboard at the time. I try my best to stick as near as possible to the following; a teaspoon each of cumin, ground coriander, cayenne pepper, paprika, and celery salt, 2 of chili powder, and a good pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Grind it up in a pestle and mortar if you have one (I have two because I'm a kitchen dork) and add it all to the pan with a bit more oil, coating the meat on both sides. 
Once the meat has browned off nicely, throw in a good mug of quality coffee. Yeah, for real. The coffee gives the chili a really deep, rich flavour and since nicking the idea from a certain pukka TV chef several years ago I haven't looked back. At this point go in with your chopped tomatoes and about 400ml of beef stock. Turn the heat down, stick the cover on and set the timer for 3 hours - at least.
It was an old schoolfriend of mine who initially suggested the chili idea for the blog, requesting a 'blow your head off hot chili' that he could make at home. Challenge accepted. So, Saturday afternoon whilst I was busy watching the football I sent my girlfriend off into town on a chili pepper mission and she did not disappoint. I chose one of the scotch bonnets, scraped out the seeds (tiny little fire bombs) and blended it up with a clove of garlic and a decent glug of oil and red wine vinegar.
 Blended scotch bonnet pepper or, as I like to call it, 'napalm death juice'. Things not to do after handling this stuff; touch your eyes, touch your lips, touch your genitals, pick your nose, pick your friend's nose, touch your friend's genitals, change your contact lenses...the list goes on. If you get any of this on you just make sure you wash your hands. Again and again and again. Pour this into your chili, add a chopped up sweet red pepper, stick the lid on and try to forget about it.
After handling those chilis, you deserve a hops-based reward. Delicious beer this one, it had a surprisingly fruity peach taste. Not that I minded, but I felt surprisingly fruity myself drinking it.
I never used to like cornbread too much, but this recipe has truly converted me. Apart from being delicious, it is the easiest thing in the world to make. 380g of plain flour, 220g of cornmeal or polenta, 110g of sugar, 4 tsp of baking powder, a pinch of salt, 2 eggs, 480ml of milk and about 120g of melted butter. Mix it all together, stir in some sliced jalapenos, bake for about 20mins at 200C and you're good to go. This stuff is even better the next morning with some eggs and a tall cup of coffee.
With chili in mind and all that time to kill, try to get in as many cowboy-related activities as possible. Lasso a horse, round up cattle, wear a bad-ass hat. If none of that is at all achievable then sit down in front of a roaring campire (TV) with a packet of beef jerky. Try to get away with spitting on the floor.
After a good few hours of cooking, stick a few forks in and separate all of the meat - it should come away so easily, you'll wonder what you were ever doing with mince in the first place. Tip in a tin of kidney beans and let them heat through whilst your rice cooks. Chop up some spring onions, ready your sour cream and get stuck in. Yee-haw. (sorry, I couldn't resist)


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Mozzarella Meatball Subs

For better or for worse, there are certain firsts in my life that I will never forget; my first kiss - Annie Barnden, year 7, behind the DJ booth in the rugby club, my first beer - 15 years old, visiting my older sister at college, my first roller-coaster ride - American Eagle, Six Flags Great America, and, oddly enough, my first meatball sub - TC Lando's, Acton, Massachusetts.
Tucked away in a quiet strip mall, sandwiched between a Dry Cleaners and Dunkin' Donuts, TC Lando's was (and still is) a family-owned pizzeria offering a real taste of Italy right in the heart of suburban New England, and a favourite hang-out of ours after baseball practise. Having made my way through the pizzas off the menu, I remember the first time I ordered the meatball sub - juicy all-beef meatballs, fresh marinara sauce, melted provolone cheese all served on a home-baked baguette the size of my leg. After one bite I was hooked, and knew exactly where all of my allowance was going from that day forward, whether my chubby little teenage tummy liked it or not. (For the record; first roller-coaster, loved it, first beer, hated it, and first kiss...well I remember it, and I guess that's the important thing.)
I have my parents to thank for my interest and passion in food, as well as the inspiration for many of my recipes. My mom used to make these fantastic mozzarella meatballs for us kids, and rather than try to mess around with the recipe too much, instead I've stuck them in a bun, and served them with chips - thanks mom. To start with, homemade marinara sauce is essential - shop-bought stuff doesn't even compare, and ends up costing twice as much as it is. Peel half a dozen tomatoes - retaining the stalk if possible. Chop the tomatoes into medium chunks then fry over a medium heat in a little bit of oil. Throw in the stalk for extra tomatoey-ness, add a squeeze of tomato puree, some oregano and a spoonful of sugar (admit it, you just started singing Mary Poppins didn't you?) - leave to simmer. Easy. Cheap. Delicious.
For the meatballs, start by dicing your mozzarella ball into squares. Eat several of these to make sure they taste as good as they look...this is a pretty important step.
The mince mixture. There's no exact science here whatsoever, so use whatever you like, and whatever you have to hand. I generally go in with a small chopped onion, some chili powder, garlic salt, a splash of soy sauce and a pinch of salt. Stick your hands in and give it a mix..why the hell not. Depending on how big you like your balls, 500g of mince should give you somewhere between 12-16 of the beefy treats, so separate accordingly. Making a well with your thumb, push a square of mozzarella into each of your meatballs, rolling between the palms of your hands, getting it as smooth as possible so that any potential melted cheese escape routes are blocked.
Once they're all rolled, dust the meatballs in flour. I have three reasons for doing this; 1 - it helps to seal the meatballs to prevent seepage of cheesage, 2 - it crisps up nicely, adding another texture to the soft mince beneath, and 3 - it makes a bit more of a mess, and if you're cooking you're probably not cleaning up...might as well take advantage and keep her busy. Brown off in oil for a few minutes before sticking the frying pan right in the oven for 5-7 minutes to finish them off.
Just look at that. There really is nothing better on this planet than meat stuffed with melted cheese. I dare you to argue otherwise. Stuff as many as you can into a baguette or bun, spoon over some of your marinara sauce and finish with a bit of parmesan. Serve with a bit of rocket and some home-cooked chips. Stuff your face. This might not be the first meatball sub you ever had...but it might just be the best.
By my count, this was my 2,783rd beer. And I enjoyed it far more than my first.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Honey & Treacle Flapjacks

These flapjacks are so easy to make I almost feel like a cheat for putting them up on here. But seeing as my last post was about grilling a steak, I don't think that really matters anymore. These fellas are too delicious, and when I got the urge to make something tasty at 9:30 on Friday night they seemed like the perfect late-night snack. Unfortunately I went to bed before the flapjacks had cooled, but they made for a wholly unhealthy satisfying breakfast. Not all of my Friday nights are that sad, by the way.
One of the best thing about these flapjacks is that most of the stuff you need is already in the cupboard waiting to be made into flapjacks. 
200g of brown sugar, 200g of butter, 100g of honey and 100g of dark treacle. Melt together over a medium heat being careful not to let your new spatula adhere to the bottom of the saucepan.
Oddly enough both Charlie and I had chocolate left in our advent calendar after Christmas, so this seemed like a great way to finish it off. I also chopped some dried apricots and walnuts and mixed in a handful of raisins. Add all of this to about 400g of dried porridge oats and mix in your sugary, buttery deliciousness.
Press into a parchment-lined baking tray or dish. Sadly it needs to cool in the fridge before I can eat it. These are extremely difficult times. I kept myself busy by melting some chocolate to drizzle on top. Can guys say 'drizzle'?
After it's cooled in the fridge for a few hours, or overnight in my case, the flapjacks are ready to get in you. It might look a bit messy, but that is some chocolatey, oat-y goodness right there.
Cut yourself a slice, make a brew and grab a really doesn't get any better.

Grilled Rib-Eye with Sweet Potato

Talking to a friend the other day, I was surprised to find out that we shared a common appreciation for a very specific shopping experience. The 'my girlfriend is away tonight so I'm shopping for a man's night in' shop. Don't be offended girls, we love you, but every now and again we want uninterrupted meat and TV. You get your 4 pack of beers, your steak and your carb and you're ready to enjoy a night on the sofa being a man.
I bought a rib-eye steak from the butcher's over the weekend, and left it uncovered in the fridge for two days to mature. I'm not ashamed to admit I did this almost entirely because Heston told me to, but I will be doing this from now on. The grains just pop and it looks fantastic.
I did something this weekend that I haven't done in a long while, and that's sitting down with a brew and a big stack of cookbooks. With the internet these days it almost seems too easy to grab some quick inspiration off a website, but apart from anything else, I'd hate to waste a Christmas present. Anyway I saw a salad with these sweet potato rounds and thought they'd go well with a steak, as well as giving me an opportunity to show off my griddle pan. I blanched them for a couple of minutes, then olive oil and straight on the griddle for a few minutes each side.
Oil on the steak and right into a smoking hot griddle pan. There is no more beautiful sight in the world.
There's nothing much going on in this photo, it's just some what a vegetarian might say. 3-4 minutes each side is how I'll have mine thanks. When it's done let it rest for a good 5 minutes for maximum juiceage.
And grub's up. A dollop of yoghurt or sour cream and you're there. Was it good? Yeah it was good.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Pulled Pork Burritos with Black-eyed Beans

I can remember back to a family vacation to Texas when I must have been 13-14 years old. One night looking for something to eat we pulled up to this run-down shack of a BBQ pit that somewhat resembled Bob's Country Bunker from The Bues Brothers, and had the clientele to match. Unlike Bob's Country Bunker, however, this place didn't serve up redneck music and warm beer* - they served pulled pork sandwiches. Not just any pulled pork sandwiches, but the best damn pulled pork sandwiches I have ever tasted. Tender meat in rich BBQ sauce- they were amazing, and this recipe really takes me back there. (*They may well have also served warm beer - I was 13, ask my Dad)
My girlfriend's family was coming up for lunch and I wanted to put something together that was simple, but still a little bit impressive. I've made this a few times now and it works so well every time - plus I love the idea of putting everything out and letting people build their own's a lot of fun. Also, both Charlie and I were a little bit hungover today, so less we were doing, the better. SO - start with a nice big piece of pork shoulder. Season your meat generously with salt and pepper and cover with about 1/2 jar of orange marmalade. I've also tried this with lime marmalade and apricot jam and both worked brilliantly.
Stick the shoulder in a baking tray lined with parchment and cover with a couple of sliced red onions, a few crushed cloves of garlic, a lemon and lime, sliced. It will look a bit ridiculous...that's're doing fine. Cover tight with tin foil, stick it in the oven at about 180C and be prepared to wait 3-4 hours.
To go with the burritos I put together some stewed black-eyed beans, which were also incredibly simple and better yet - guaranteed to make you trump. Soak about 300g of dried black beans in salted water overnight, drain and set aside. Heat a splash of oil in a saucepan, throw in a diced red onion, a couple garlic cloves and half of a red chilli pepper. 
Add 200g of diced smokey bacon or lardons and cook for a few minutes before going back in with your beans and about 400ml of chicken stock, or just enough to cover the beans. A good sprig of thyme and you're there - let it cook down for 30-40 mins and then you'll have beans good enough to make Mr. Heinz nervous.
Seeing as you have 3-4 hours to kill, you may as well make some other good stuff with which to overfill your burrito. I roasted some peppers and onions, made a coriander yoghurt (you want the recipe? chop coriander, put in yoghurt), and put together a fresh tomato salad.
 At about the 3 hour mark, have a look at the pork. You'll know it's ready when you can stick two forks in there and easily pull the meat apart. You gotta be really patient here, and stick it back in if it's not quite there. The marmalade and fruit should keep it nice and moist, but make sure to cover it back up with foil if it's going back in, and basting it with some of the liquid can't hurt either. You can see how golden and crispy the pork gets on the outside as the sugars in the marmalade caramelise...the flavour here is unbelievable.

To separate the meat, stick two forks in the shoulder and just pull apart until you have a nice pile of crispy skinned, juicy meat. Squeeze some fresh lime juice over the pile and go to town. For the record, my order is - tortilla, yoghurt, rice, beans, meat, meat, meat, roasted peppers, GREEN tabasco, lettuce, squeeze of lime. The best burritos are the ones you end up eating with a fork.