Jan 15 2009

In praise of the alligator pear

One of the things I did not prepare at last month’s Super Bowl party (where I got to watch my team lose in the last thirty seconds of the game, oh the agony) was the chips-and-guacamole. It was Fay’s job to bring the beer and the guac, mine to provide the chili, the wings and the nachos. Because Fay and I have been doing this column for ten years now, we have a pretty good understanding of what the other person likes and hates, so she is one of the few people I actually trust to send out to the grocery store. I expected her to come back loaded up with avocados, chili peppers, tomatoes and maybe cilantro (which she detests). I was more than a little shocked, therefore, to see her dump a case of beer and about five packages of pre-packaged, pre-made guacamole onto the kitchen table.

“What’s this?” I asked, my voice a little high in alarm.
“Trust me,” said Fay, “even you will love this stuff.”

“This stuff” turned out to be something called “Wholly Guacamole” (the spicy variety). It was cold, as if it had been kept in the refrigerated cases at the supermarket. In the box were two vacuum-sealed packages of green goop with little red specs. With a flourish, Fay grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the corner off one of the packages, then proceeded to squeeze the stuff out the hole into a bowl as if she were decorating a cake. When she had coaxed out the last little bit she tore open a bag of corn chips and handed me one with a flourish. I took a doubtful scoop, bracing myself for the metallic tang of preservatives that seems to come with every pre-made guacamole brand.

Needlessly, as it turned out. My eyes opened in surprise. The stuff actually tasted like perfectly decent guacamole. I could taste the clean smooth avocado, a little salt, a small amount of cilantro (a notoriously difficult taste to preserve) and – I choked a bit – a fair amount of searing hot chile pepper. The trick, according the to box and the company website, is pressurized preservation. (Actually, they called it “fresherized” so you’ll have to forgive their assault on the English language) Rather than rely on any chemical or acidic methods to keep the mashed avocado from spoiling, this company treats it to ultra-high pressure (about six times the levels found at the bottom of the ocean according to the website) which kills off most of the little critters that cause oxidization and spoilage. Unopened, it will keep in the fridge thirty days, in the freezer six months. I’m going to take their word on that because I can’t bring myself to try freezing anything with avocado in it. If you like your guacamole chunky then it had its drawbacks, but if you didn’t mind it served smooth like peanut butter, then “Wholly Guacamole” passes muster. And that means something, coming from me.

I’m something of a purist when it comes to avocados. They are on my list of “perfect” foods—foods that are so good in and of themselves it is almost pointless to try to dress them up or “cook” them. I still remember the first time I ate an avocado as one of the great culinary turning points in my life. I was visiting a friend in Montreal one summer and we were walking through the great open market. My friend owned a restaurant, and was quite well known to many of the merchants. One grabbed her and pulled her aside to show her a pile of just arrived avocados. So we bought a couple. My friend borrowed a knife and a couple plastic spoons from a sandwich vendor, and borrowed a little oil and mustard. She stirred the oil and mustard together in a paper cup, then balanced one of the avocadoes on the little table we had found and sliced it round the middle lengthwise, twisting each half in opposite directions until they came apart. She handed me the half without the pit, and deftly scooped the seed out of her own piece, then poured a little of the mustard dressing into the bowl-shaped indentation it had left. She did the same for my half, and handed me a spoon. “Mange!” she said, “comme-ça.” She took her own spoon and began to scoop out pieces of avocado, allowing the mustard dressing to season each bite.

I did the same, and allowed myself on that sunny afternoon to simply sit and savor the mild, delicate, almost buttery taste of the fruit. Oh, I’d had guacamole before, I’m sure. But that day in the Montreal market was the first time I had ever truly noticed the avocado. It was so good, and made such an impression on me, that it was over a year before I could bring myself to eat one any other way.
These days I’m a little more flexible. I can put up with avocado appearing as filler in my sushi, in my wraps and burritos, and even on the occasional burger. It sure beats shredded iceberg lettuce in that regard. But there is always a part of me that thinks these uses are a waste of a good thing, and I never do it at home.
Guacamole, on the other hand, is one of my very few approved uses for an avocado. If you aren’t just going to scoop it out of its thick, rough skin and eat it plain, then making guacamole is an acceptable alternative.
It is a dish of ancient origins—invented by the Aztecs, who considered avocados to have aphrodisiac qualities. Their name for the fruit, ahuacatl, means “testicle” (try not to let that little tidbit spoil your appetite). Where the term “avocado” comes from is the subject of some debate. Most believe it to be a mispronunciation of the Aztec word—which the Spanish turned into “abogado” and the English into “alligator.” The English in Jamaica called them “alligator pears.” But the ingredients of guacamole have remained largely unchanged for over a thousand years: avocado, chiles, salt, onions, tomatoes, cilantro. Other ingredients have found their way into the mix in our modern, experimental era, but the one thing that absolutely does NOT belong in guacamole is garlic. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a philistine who wouldn’t know good cooking if they fell face first into it.

The recipe I use, (and thought I’d be using for the Super Bowl party) comes from Diana Kennedy, who is to Mexican Cooking what Julia Child is to French, or Marcella Hazan is to Italian. Kennedy is a stickler for authenticity in her recipes, which is a little funny because the Hass avocados she insists on using (with good reason) are actually an agricultural accident invented by a California grower, and not authentically “Mexican” at all. Still, she’s right to insist—they taste much better than the kind you get from Florida with the smooth, bright green skins.

The Perfect Guacamole Recipe
Excerpted from The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy

2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
4 serrano chiles, or to taste, finely chopped
3 heaped tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro,
Salt to taste
3 large Hass avocados (about 1 pound)
4 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped (About 2/3 Cup)

To Serve:
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped onion
2 heaped tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro

Grind together the onion, chiles, cilantro, and salt to a paste. Cut the avocados into halves, remove the pits, and squeeze the flesh out of the shell and mash into the chile base to a textured consistency — it should not be smooth. Stir in all but 1 tablespoon of the tomatoes, onion, and cilantro, adjust seasoning, and top with the remaining chopped tomatoes, onion, and cilantro. Serve immediately at room temperature.

Jan 6 2009

Chili Nation

(a revisit from last year)

This morning as I was doing my grocery shopping, I found myself navigating round stock clerks pushing dollies full of massive boxes filled with potato chips and Doritos, jars of salsa and dip, cases of Budweiser and (because I live in a yuppie neighborhood) Blue Moon. The meat cases were piled high with packaged ground beef and Italian sausage. The frozen foods section was bulging with boxes of microwaveable pizza bites and just-reheat-me bags of “Buffalo-style” chicken wings. The aspirin aisle had stocked up on Tums.

Oh yeah, it’s Super Bowl season.

The most important thing about this time of year—after the current standing of the New England Patriots, which, I’m sorry to tell y’all, is MY TEAM—is what to serve on Super Bowl Sunday. I’m a couple weeks ahead as I write this, so the Pats haven’t squared off against Chargers yet. So while I’m planning out the menu for the big event, I haven’t done the shopping yet. If you are reading this and the Pats didn’t win the AFC, then just imagine me crying in my beer and my bowl of chili.

Chili, of course, is the main thing on the menu. And by chili, I mean Chili, not that stuff that comes out of cans that Southerners put on hot dogs.

Chili is a little like barbecue in that every region has its own ideas of how to make it, and arguments can get quite heated over what should and shouldn’t go in the pot. Its origins are lost in the annals of time, although some folks say that it first appeared at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago as the “San Antonio Chili Stand”. My favorite story is that chili was invented by cowboys at campfires along the early western cattle trails—where there the little meat available to them was tough and tasteless. So the cattle hands invented a stew that spiced up the unaged beef, and even took to planting oregano and herbs along the trails—partly to keep the cattle from grazing off the trail, and partly to have the herbs available when they made camp for the night. It’s a nice, but probably untrue story. The truth, I suspect, is more pragmatic; Chili is an excellent way to prepare tough cuts of beef, and to use up otherwise inedible parts of a cow, like the suet. It also makes a little beef go a long way and is tolerant of variation. Like all great peasant food, it goes well with almost anything you have to hand.

It is so tolerant of experimentation, in fact, that when the first chili contest was held (in 1967, according to Bernard Clayton in his fabulous book The Complete Book of Soups and Stews) people started to go a little overboard with “secret ingredients” that included things like chocolate (not so unusual), peanut butter, applesauce, artichoke hearts (perish the thought) and even goat cheese. One woman attributed the key to her winning recipe to the fact that she tied her chile peppers up in the toe of her discarded panty hose.

I do not wear panty hose, and have no hope of winning any contests. My favorite chili recipe comes out of a book called Chili Nation by Jan and Michael Stern, who are these people who somehow get paid to travel around the country and eat stuff. Each page in the book features a recipe from a different state—some of them quite weird. I use the recipe from Missouri called “Mule-Kicking Hot Chili.” I chose it firstly because I usually have most of the ingredients on hand, and secondly because it didn’t arouse any of my own prejudices. Nothing makes me quite as annoyed as being served un-natural versions of great dishes: Vegetarian chili? What’s the point? “White” chili? If I want white food I’ll have a slice of Wonder bread. I want chili that acts like chili, and doesn’t get too weird in the process. The Sterns’ Hawaiian Chili recipe uses macadamia nuts, the Arizona recipe–you’d think they’d know better–involves cream cheese. And the Alabama “Whistle Stop” chili uses, (good lord), rolled oats. By contrast, the weirdest thing in the Mule Kicking Missouri chili is a can of Budweiser. Which is only to be expected, since Missouri is the home state of Anheuser Busch.

Mule-Kickin chili is an entirely meat-based recipe; no beans, and no tomatoes. I am not one of those people who feel strongly one way or the other about beans and tomatoes in a chili. I know some people do. For some folk, the phrase “add a can of crushed tomatoes” is chili-fightin’ words—tantamount to finishing the sentence “well your mother was a…!” But not me. Missouri Mule-Kickin’ Chili has all the necessary things from my point of view—it has meat and lots of it, and it had chilies, and lots of them. The base is made by soaking dried chili peppers (ancho and chipotle) in hot boiling water until they are soft, and then pureeing them in a blender. Otherwise it is just browned cubes of steak and sweet sausage, a dash of mustard for some kick, and a little bit of onion and garlic. And a can of beer.

The first time I made Mule-Kickin Hot Chili I stayed true to the recipe and ended up with a spicy hot, sharp-tasting stew that really hit the spot. But it was even better reheated the next day, and even better the day after that, when I caved and dumped in a can of crushed tomatoes to balance out the beery flavor. It is perfect for a Super Bowl Sunday meal because you can keep it simmering on the stove indefinitely, just adding more beer as the liquid cooks down. Serve it with cheap corn chips and sliced extra sharp cheddar cheese, and more of the same kind of beer you put in the chili. To make it really, really three-alarm-fire hot, add a few dried cayenne or scotch bonnet peppers to the mix.

Jan & Michael Stern’s Mule-Kickin’ Hot Chili

3 dried ancho chilies
2 dried pasilla peppers
2 dried chipotle chilies
½ cup chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lb beef round steak, trimmed of fat and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 lbs sweet Italian sausage
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 1/2teaspoons prepared hot mustard
1 (12ounce) can Budweiser beer (or your choice of non-yuppie brew)
1 tablespoon masa harina (dissolved in 1/4 cup water)

1. Put the chiles in a large heatproof bowl; add boiling water to cover.
2. Let stand 30 minutes, until soft; stem and seed them.
3. In a food processor, puree the chiles with some of the soaking water; set aside.
4. In a large pot, sauté the onion and garlic in the oil until soft.
5. Add in the beef; cook until browned; drain any excess fat; set aside.
6. Preheat the broiler; cook the sausages under the broiler until they are cooked through and crisp skinned.
7. Cut into 1 inch discs and add to the beef/onion mixture in the large pot along with the chile puree, sugar, salt, pepper, oregano, mustard, and beer.
8. Stir well and bring to a boil; decrease heat and cook at a simmering boil, partially covered, for 40 minutes.
9. Add in the masa harina mixture; cook for 10 more minutes.