I went on a vacation for a week, so I mostly ate out and other people’s cooking, but I did get to help make ice cream and a dinner.  After the vacation I was sick for a week, and didn’t do much cooking.  I’m better now and back on my game.

I made the best chili ever.  Just a pound of ground beef, cooked in a big pot, then drained most of the fat into my fat jar, and put the meat aside.  I sauted onions and fresh garlic in the beef residue, then added six arbol chilis and four dandicuts (60,000 SU peppers from Pakistan, hot and delicious!, from Penzy’s Spices), a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, a can of rinsed black beans and a can of rinsed kidney beans (organic from Trader Joe’s).  I added the meat back in and let it all simmer at 150 F for a few hours.  This was about 6 bowls for $5 (the beef was way on sale).  I served it hot topped with Cabot’s habanero cheddar cheese and some tortilla chips.  I should have entered this in the chili contest.

My wife cooked last night: habanero cheese on scrambled eggs with a side of asparagus.  Simple, but good.

I got a package of chicken thighs, took off the skin, browned them in my skillet (I should have patted them dry with paper towels first, but I forgot, and they didn’t brown as well as I wanted), then put them in my slow cooker.  I deglazed the skillet with some chardonnay and a little tomato juice, and added that to the slow cooker with a big can of crushed tomatoes.  That’s running right now, and in a bit I’ll add sauted onions and carrots.

I’m also baking whole wheat bread today, and I’m still making lots of yogurt out of organic nonfat milk.  I’m about to whip up another batch of garlic and yogurt mashed potatoes, too.   We are eating more beans than we used to, but we could still do more.  We also are inconsistent with salads, but carrots and onions make it into a lot of meals.  Broccoli is the most green that we eat regularly, and spinach, but we’re not close to the recommended quantity of veggies.

Since last week’s bacon experience, I decided to read up a bit on nitrates in relation to bacon.  The resources I found converged on a few conclusions.  I used McGee’s 2004 edition of On Food and Cooking, the Junk Food Science blog, a paper from the University of Minnesota, and a Chowhound forum thread.  Here’s the scoop:

  • Nitrates and nitrites are not bad for you, as far as anyone can tell.  They exist in huge proportions in vegetables and our bodies, and very tiny proportions in cured meats.
  • In meat, nitrates gradually turn into nitrites, which is desired because nitrites fight off botulism bacteria.  Botulism is bad.  For meats that are not cured for long, nitrites are added directly instead of nitrates.
  • Nitrites also help our meats taste good.
  • The scary things that damage our DNA are nitrosamines.  Nitrosamines are made when nitrites meet amino acids (meat) at high temperatures, ~400 F and up.  Do not overcook or burn bacon.  Microwaving produces fewer nitrosamines than frying.  McGee mentions two other toxic byproducts: heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which form in any meat at high temperatures (so, even without nitrites), and which can be thwarted in our digestive tracts by fruit, vegetables, and yogurt; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which form when organic material (but not pure coal or gas) burns.  If you’re worried about these things, go ahead and eat bacon, but avoid meats cooked at high temperatures or smoked.  Adding citrus juice and/or Rosemary to your meats may help.
  • You are more likely to have health problems due to your sodium and saturated fat intake or obesity, or some unclear factor that connects meat-eating to cancer and early death.

In the Chowhound thread, many people mentioned that bacon marketed as “No Nitrates or Nitrites Added” is still full of nitrites from celery juice or powder.  I checked the packages at Trader Joe’s, and every package with the claim had an asterisk about celery and included celery.  What a scam.  Celery has a very high proportion of nitrites, so these bacons may have just as much as the much cheaper bacon from the supermarket that doesn’t try to take advantage of people’s fears.  At least the suckers won’t get botulism.

So, I am comfortable again with my bacon habits.  I almost always use the microwave.  I used my cast iron lately to better collect and use the fat for seasoning, and also on my high-carbon steel skillet.  I don’t eat a lot, and my diet in general is low in sodium and saturated fat, and high in unsaturated fats.  Yay bacon!

I bought “free-range, vegetarian-diet” eggs at Trader Joe’s along with some regular eggs to see if I could detect differences.  So far I’ve cooked one of each sunny-side-up and one of each over-easy.  Both had very strong yolks, especially since they were relatively fresh.  The FRVD eggs had slightly darker yolks, but barely, and had whites that cohered better.  The regular eggs’ whites tore a bit when I moved the cooking eggs in the skillet, and the FRVD eggs did not.  There was no flavor difference that I could notice.  The FRVD eggs are supposed to be higher in Omega-3s, but there are other ways to get Omega-3s, and it’s not clear to me that the FRVD eggs are worth the extra cost.

I roasted another 22 lb turkey.  I was better with Alton Brown’s directions this time, and it turned out incredibly juicy and flavorful.  I baked more bread for turkey and PB&J sandwiches.  I made a pureed greenbean soup, but I may never make it again.  I use turkey stock to make whole rice.  I had some more yeast waffles (page 234) for breakfast this morning.  I’m really digging the Tupelo honey.

I’d like to say I’m totally ready for this challenge, but I’d be lying. Life has been a chaotic mess, the past few weeks, and we have met its challenges by … not cooking at home, pretty much at all. I usually make pretty healthy choices, though I have tended, this year, to look more for calories, cholesterol, fat (saturated and otherwise), carbohydrate (fiber and otherwise), and protein content than for additives in the ingredients list, with the one exception of high fructose corn syrup (or, as the corn lobby wants it called, “corn sugar“). On the plus side, it has made me a better label reader and generally more cognizant of my food choices. On the down side, I had, for simplicity, found some staples that I bought pretty often to circulate into out of lunches—which I’m now declaring verboten (Orowheat sandwich rounds, store brand Light & Fit-style yogurts, sugar free Jello pudding, Sun Chips, pre-made hummus … things like that). So I sort of have to relearn what I can and can’t buy.

In talking to my mom about this challenge, she brought up a “diet” that some people she knows had gone on, with great success: perimeter shopping. This comes out to more or less what I’m doing, and if you can stick to it, it’s a much clearer and simpler set of rules, requiring [probably] less time in the store each week (because you won’t be reading labels or fighting your way down center aisles). It won’t work so well for me, so I’m sticking with label-reading. For one thing, I shop at CostCo for non-perishables, and there is no perimeter there. For another, I will still have a fairly sizable list of mid-store needs (or, well, wants): tea, whole wheat and regular flour, those veggies I buy canned or frozen, steel cut oats, dried or canned beans, etc. Though the eHow article brings up a good point: I should see if my store has a butcher—or go to New Sagaya, which I’m sure does—and see if I can get grass-fed beef there.

Anyway, I have been studying up a bit. We’re down to our last package of chicken (CostCo packages chicken funny), and then, except for two ham steaks that Dale’s going to eat while I’m out of town in October, we’re out of non-fish meat. I presume I’ll be able to find ethically sourced meat somewhere in town, but I’m still spending a fair bit of time on vegetarian recipe sites, to try to build us an interesting and varied, but lower-meat, diet. I found a great-looking recipe for lentil-based sloppy joes, which I’m itching to try, and just today I tried a pretty good black bean burger recipe. We ate our burger (we split one, due to a late lunch) on a tasty wheat roll with preservatives in it, so I guess I’ve got a ways to go. 😉 But I liked it better than Boca, and Dale liked it at least as well. So that’s a relief—one easy peasy dinner for nights when we’re not up to cooking.

Anyway, I thought I’d share my recipe pile, in case anyone else is looking for ideas—even if you don’t love the ones I’ve picked out to try, most of the linked sites have TONS of recipes you can browse through: http://www.delicious.com/artificialinanity/recipes. If I’ve tried them, they’re tagged “tested” and either “good,” “great,” or “not-good,” and if I haven’t tried them yet they’re “untested.” Hopefully, this organization scheme will work out. 🙂

(The challenge hasn’t started, but I’m getting ready. Honing skills. Practicing. :))

I’m the kind of cook who likes to do huge batches that I can eat from for several days. That’s how I learned to cook during undergraduate summers and graduate school–related to my southern upbringing, perhaps–and, even with another person in the house, it’s still the easiest method for me and the most likely strategy to get me through this challenge.

Chili has been a big part of that, along with fried rice, certain casseroles, lasagna, bean soup, and, more recently, rice and beans. But probably the first really good meal I ever mastered on my own was chili.

Pulling together a “recipe” was non-trivial, to be honest, because, when I cook my staple meals, I always just kind of throw things together until it “looks/smells/tastes right.” But I wanted to get the nutritional information for it, or at least a rough approximation thereof, and I wanted to convey something more helpful than “add the right amount of tomatoes, then add chili powder until it’s the right color.” 🙂

So, without further adieu, here’s a recipe for my chili. I’ll try to point out where you can vary things–which is pretty much everywhere–and what’s worked for me in the past.

Coral’s Chili
To be blended together (no, really, liquefy all of these things together!):
* 2 cans of diced tomatoes (I use S&W organic)
* 1 small zucchini (not required–we don’t eat squash much, so I thought we could do with the added vitamins… and I swear it makes the chili sweeter)
* half an onion–whole is fine, if you want; I throw in more onion powder when I use less onion
* 2 bell peppers (I like red & orange) – you could drop down to 1, maybe mess with some of the spices, and be fine
* 3 cloves of garlic
* 2 jalapeños (you can use different hot peppers, if preferred; you can use fewer or leave out seeds, to bring down the [noticeable!] heat)

To be cooked and drained (I go so far as to rinse it):
* ~1lb of lean ground turkey (I used a 20oz package for calculations) – beef also works great, though it’s more calories. I bet lentils are great, though I haven’t tried them. TVP/soy crumbles/other vegetarian “meats” will be discussed below.

To be thrown into the pot with the meat & veggies (use what you like, honestly; bagged beans work fine, with the necessary extra steps for preparation, but CostCo just happens to carry canned beans):
* 2 cans of black beans, drained and rinsed well (this makes it easier on your tummy… and roommates)
* 1 can of kidney beans, drained and rinsed well (“)
* 1 can of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed well (“)
* 1 can of corn, drained

Spices, can be adjusted to taste, not reflected in nutritional calculations:
* 1 Tbsp chili powder (you can use more, but I recommend against using less)
* 1/2 tsp cayenne (this can be dropped significantly, to make it less spicy)
* 1/4 tsp onion powder
* 1/4 tsp garlic powder
* 1/4 tsp ground cumin – this gives me indigestion, so I use very little; you may want more
* generous dash (maybe 1/8 tsp, maybe less?) paprika (can be left out, to make it less spicy)
* oregano – I used 1 tsp or so of fresh, this time; dried works great, too
* basil – I use this in nearly everything, but it’s optional for the chili, really, 1/2 to 1 tsp
* nutmeg – just a tiny bit–a few passes over the grater (you DO grind your own nutmeg, right? I’m not a kitchen snob, but wow does this make a difference!)–because, again, it goes in pretty much everything I make 🙂
* salt to taste (you’ll know if you need more)
* pepper, if you want (I didn’t bother)

Cook and drain the meat, if you’re using it. If you’re using soy crumbles, TVP, or whatever, just put them aside for now–they won’t stand up to all of the cooking, so keep them out until the very last step. Believe me, chili isn’t pretty if TVP goes in at the beginning! (If anyone’s brave enough to try tofu in this chili, let me know. I’m not. :)) Turn off the skillet.

Now’s when you blend your veggies. I like to blend the pepper, onion, zucchini, and jalapeños in with the tomatoes, so as not to get too weird a color in any one run of the blender. (Side note: I guess you could try to cook this recipe without blending, but I don’t know how it would turn out. I hate onions, and I hate peppers–at least, their texture. I hate finding them in things, though obviously their flavor doesn’t offend me when it’s blended in with other things. Actually, I don’t really like finding tomatoes in things, either. So I wouldn’t eat this chili, un-blended. Your mileage may vary. If you do leave the veggies chunky, definitely skip the zucchini. And let me know how it goes!)

If you want to use a crock pot for this, you can; I did 3-4 hours on high, and had great success, last time I made it (lid off for the last hour or so, to let it thicken), and 8 hours on low should also work fine. Or a stock pot, on a lower temperature, with periodic stirring, would work. As you can see from the photo, I have a really deep skillet-like thing that I like to use. (It’s REALLY deep.) You’re going to be cooking this for at least an hour–probably more like 3–so pick something you don’t mind being taken up for the afternoon.

Throw the meat, the blended veggies, the beans and corn, and the spices into your pot, and cook at a fairly low temperature for as long as you’ve got. This batch cooked for 4 hours, about half of it with the lid on, before I was ready to call it “done.” (When it first starts, it tastes all wrong. As all the flavors cook together, it starts tasting like chili. The longer it goes, the better, in my experience.)

As far as varying it, really anything goes: fresh tomatoes are good, if you have them, and if you have a big enough pot, you can add another can’s worth without really damaging the taste (adjust the spices a little, and you’re golden); you can increase or decrease the peppers, too, and although I have always used fresh, I’m going to try frozen, next time I do it (and let you know how that goes). It can, as I said, use less meat or none. You can use different beans. You can leave out the corn. I’ve seen people put potatoes in their chili–you could do that, too. And it can be served all kinds of ways: in a bowl with a side of bread, over pasta, under cheese, under sour cream, as part of a Mexican dip… go crazy!

(One note, the turkey is not cruelty-free; I bought it before I finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and throwing it out seemed disrespectful. So I may make the vegetarian version of this chili more often in the future.)

I used a recipe calculator to determine the recipe’s nutritional content. The calorie estimate is a bit off–on the high side–because they assume you didn’t drain and rinse the beans. But it gives you a feel for it, anyway. For each of 6 servings:
Calories: 465, Fat 10.6 (saturated: 2.1g), Cholesterol: 67mg, Sodium: at least 1g, Potassium: 176mg, Carbohydrates: 57.9g (fiber: 17.6g, sugar: 12.7g), Protein: 36.4g, Vitamin A: 16.6%, Vit C: 40.4%, Calcium: 17.9%, Iron: 35.6%, and a few other vitamins come in, all under 5%.

Dale ate one of the servings right away, and I put another in the freezer with a label (contents, date, calories), for some time in the future when I want food quickly and don’t want to cook. The other four will go to work with us as (rather substantial) lunches, or will be eaten as dinners, depending on our moods. I packaged up 2 servings of sour cream, to go with them, in case they do become lunch.