Monday, December 22, 2008

More Snow, Canceled Plans, and Chili...

So, we are in the midst of what they're calling an "Arctic Blast" here in Portland. The snow just keeps on falling. It's absolutely gorgeous and I'm super-excited about it, except that it keeps ruining my plans to get together with friends. Sequel-Fest 2008: Part Two has been postponed a couple times now, and the Chili Cook-Off scheduled for last night had to be canceled as well. Yet, it's hard to complain too much when it looks like this outside:
Since we'd already bought all of the necessary ingredients before canceling the Cook-Off, my dad and I went ahead and had a one-on-one Chili Cook-Off while my mom and I had a one-on-one Cornbread Cook-Off. In the end, with the snow falling outside and with my heart still broken from morning football, it turned out to be a nice day for sitting at home staying warm by the fire and judging who made the best cornbread (I did) and chili (me again).
For the Cornbread Cook-Off I couldn't take too much pride in my victory since I sort of cheated by using bacon. My mom's entry was a more traditional cornbread (on the left in the picture above), which tasted really good but didn't stand a chance against a cornbread stuffed with bacon, scallions, and extra-sharp white cheddar (middle, above). The third entry was a Chorizo, chile, and cheddar cornbread which should have also been awesome had I not gone a little crazy with the amount of chiles I added, thus making the predominant flavor "fire" rather than Chorizo... I should clarify that, as far as cornbread to serve with chili goes, my mom's Three Layer Cornbread would be the winner... It's only when one thinks about sitting down to a solitary piece of cornbread that the Bacon-Scallion-Cheddar version takes the lead.

As for my victory in the Chili Cook-Off, I feel my dad was somewhat handicapped by the fact that the paprika we had in the house was smoked paprika, whereas we both typically use hot paprika when we make chili. This affected both of our final dishes, but paprika is a much more dominant component of his chili so he was at a greater disadvantage. That being said, my chili was totally freaking awesome and I suspect I might have won anyway... I think we may need to have a rematch with proper ingredients. My chili has a softer texture and a richer, more subtle flavor while my dad's chili is a bit chunkier and much more aggressively spiced (not spicier as in "hotter," just seasoned with more spices...). Despite all the differences, they still look almost identical.
When I first made my chili I was actually following my dad's recipe (inasmuch as I ever follow recipes). The fact that it turned out so completely different is due both to differences in the ingredients that were available to me (I was in Melbourne) and also to differences in our cooking styles. (For example, I like to put in all the spices at the same time as the meat so they can season it while it browns as well as while it simmers, whereas my dad cooks the meat and then adds the spices to season it as it simmers.)
My secret ingredient (ground veal) is something that resulted from running to the store in Melbourne mid-chili-cooking for more meat and finding that ground veal was less expensive than lean ground beef and, unlike the ground beef, was available in the exact quantity that I wanted to add. Finding veal in Portland was a bit trickier (it's practically as common as chicken in Australia, whereas the guy at New Seasons looked at me with a special level of disdain reserved for people who support baby-cow-torture before telling me I would have to go out to Gartner's (below) to find ground veal around here), but I do think it's what gives my chili its amazing texture.
I guess the point of the above rambling is that I like how recipes evolve due to random circumstances and spontaneous ideas. Sometimes (like with my totally awesome chili) it works out for the best and sometimes (like with having to substitute smoked paprika for hot) it's not so great, but it's a lot of what makes cooking so much fun. I started keeping a kitchen notebook a couple months before I made my chili for the first time, and it's been way niftier than I ever would have thought. I hate when I make something and it turns out absolutely perfect but I have no idea how I made it and thus can never get it quite so perfect again. Taking notes while I cook lets me fix things that don't work so well and recreate things that work perfectly... and beat my dad in Chili Cook-Offs...

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