Tag Archives: Spicy

Chili: It’s all in the technique

I used to think that taste buds were hereditary. And in some cases I still do.  But somehow I developed a semi-unnatural obsession to spicy food that hasn’t come from my dad and especially not my mom.  So you could imagine when mom told me she entered a chili contest I was a little confused. Not to mention, neither of us have made it before.  Growing up Italian, chili wasn’t exactly in our dinnertime repertoire. The closest we got was a pasta bolognese but still no heat. But in true mom form, she’s in it for the thrill and the social gathering with her friends that will take place at the bar while the judges are deliberating.

So I went to a few trusted sources like Ruth Reichel and Serious Eats and made a few decisions.  Ruth suggested bison meat because it’s naturally very lean and full of flavor. Both sources suggested making a homemade chili powder. And Serious Eats made some cautionary comments about using dried kidney beans properly (another thing I’m not familiar with).

After gathering some preliminary ingredients I went to Holiday Meats in Little Silver, NJ to pick up the bison.  Holiday Meats is a family run wholesale meat supplier to some of the best restaurants in the area. This was my first time visiting and owner Vinny Valentino was gracious enough to show me around the facility. Coming from a direct line of family butchers I always get excited by an opportunity to learn more about the craft practiced by my family. And personally, I feel that true butchers are a rare breed of artists. Vinny is especially rare.  He inherited the business from his father, who was a product of the golden ages of New York butcher shops with a legacy to do one thing, and do it right. While many things have changed from those golden years, the passion to share quality meat and service that takes you back to the days when businesses shared true genuine relationships with their customers, has not.

Back in the kitchen my mom and her friend Margo were ready to get started. Margo is Greek and has  some experience with chili and definitely more of a risk taker when it comes to the spice factor.  Margo was a true asset in this operation and a trusted ‘double checker’ as I like to call it. We weren’t  working from a recipe so a double check in everything from when to add the tomatoes to the spice mixture was critical. And like hell my mom was about to taste anything spicy. I forced her to try a roasted poblano pepper just to expand her pepper knowledge. You’d think she was a 2-year-old about to take cough medicine.

One of the major things I learned in culinary school was to taste as you go along.  And that was absolutely a key part of building this dish. I was going purely off of flavor building techniques and trusting our instincts.  The voice of Chef Anna, a very influential ‘tough love’ kind of instructor was replaying in my head all day.  “Just think!” is what she would bark at us in the kitchen.  Cooking is thinking. Things just don’t magically taste good.  You have to think. Think that you better add those fresh bell peppers in last otherwise they will turn to mush. Think that its okay if your beans are still a little hard because you will be reheating the chili again in the morning and it will be sitting in a crock pot at the competition for at least four hours.

About six hours later with a little of this and a little of that we were in pretty good shape. The chili looked really nice and the level of heat was perfect.  You got the meaty, tomato base up front and that slow rise of spice on the finish.

With twelve other competitors I was keeping my expectations low. Chili is a very personal thing to most people. Family recipes that have been passed down from one tailgate to the next.  But I was hoping my homemade chili powder and chili paste would give us some muscle. As an added bonus I fried fresh corn tortillas to serve on the side.

The judges took a good hour to come to their decision. After which the public got to taste and make a public vote. We were table number 6, right in the middle of the tastings.  By the time I tasted up to number 6 I noticed ours definitely stood out from the previous five.  My mom had a small entourage of her bowling friends all of which said our chili was the best.  Somehow I wasn’t convinced.  There were some pretty good chilis out there, and it really comes down to what the judges are feeling.  I felt we put forth a decent, traditional chili with a foundation in good technique and balanced flavor.

What seemed like hours later as the crock pots were starting to burn the last remains and people began picking on the stale chips the crowd gathered to announce the winners. The small neighborhood pub was jammed with people and I barely make my way to the front of the pack as they announced second place #6! I literally screamed and ran to Margo and my mom, hugging all of my moms friends and our new supporters.  Some people in the crowd felt my reaction was even better than the 1st place winners!

While I’m not about to revel our secret recipe I will share some helpful tips:

1. Bison meat was a great choice. I was almost turned off by the fatty ground beef, some of which had little pools of orange fat at the top.

2. My mom made an excellent observation that starting the chili in a dutch oven rather than cooking in a slow cooker made a lot of difference.  Building flavor is a gradual layering process that you can’t achieve in a slow cooker.

3. Make homemade chili powder using toasted dried peppers and spices such as cumin and cloves. Who knows how long the chili powder in your spice rack has been sitting there.

4. I also opted for a homemade chili paste using a range of fresh peppers (on the hotter end) and canned chipotle in adobo which you can find in the International section of the grocery store. Blend all together adding a little tomato juice of beef stock to help it loosen up.

5 . For us, we kept it simple and didn’t use any secret flavor boosters like chocolate, soy sauce or beer.  But we did use about half a bottle of red wine to deglaze. Again, in the words of chef Anna, THINK. Take your chili in one direction then experiment later.


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February 16, 2012 · 8:55 pm

Some Pretty Fancy Food

A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to attend the NASFT Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C.  A mecca trade-show for all artisan and ‘fancy food’ products.  What it really comes down to is a huge networking event for people in the industry and a bunch of free samples!  On a more serious note, I did have a moment of realization that no matter what is going on in the world, no matter the differences, people come to the NASFT Fancy Food Show on the same platform and with the same spirit and curiosity to learn and support what others are doing in the specialty food industry.  Industries cross as cheese people meet the cookie people, BBQ people meet pasta people.  And international countries who are millions of miles apart from each other share a reserved sense of pride and specialty food items close to their culture.

Every corner showcases originality, creativity and perseverance to educate participants of the show.  There is a divine entrepreneurial spirit behind each booth, a story that led then to where they are today and a common goal to share their labors of love.

Many of the participants are just starting out, some have been around for a very long time and are launching new products.  And it is also fun to spot celebrity chefs promoting their product lines.  Lydia was serving pasta, Duff Goldman was promoting fun decorating supplies like cake tattoos, Richard Bayless  was at his Frontera Mexican food product booth.  And the lovely Cat Cora was promoting a variety of tapenades, olive oils and kitchen utensils.

Cat was also the Keynote speaker at the Sofi awards which stands for specialty outstanding food innovation.  There are more than 2,600 entries which are narrowed down to 125 silver finalists and then 33 gold winners in each category.  Cat’s keynote speech was a rally call for all of us who have made sacrifices and believed in ourselves to do what we love.  Her advice was to push yourself to obtain the best possible education in your field, to give back to your community, to reach and develop your sense of self, and to know at everyday is a series of small steps that will get you to your goal.  “Have fun, and keep cooking!”

The show itself was definitely like the Academy Awards of specialty food.  However in this case the acceptance speeches are much shorter and thanks is given to key family members, employees and even the cows! People were truly gracious, touched and confirmed that their hard work has been recognized by industry leaders.

Here are links to some vendors and winners that caught my attention:

Sir Kensington’s Gourmet Scooping Ketchup – Awesome packaging, and a delicious  product!  They’ve also done a really great job with branding their product.  The website is so well designed and gives Sir Kensington a real personality!

The Brooklyn Salsa Company – Again, great package design, delicious and they’re from Brooklyn!!!  Bonus they use as much direct trade, local, and organic ingredients as possible.

Theo Chocolate – Ghost Chile Caramels was a Gold winner in the Confection category of the Sofi Awards.  They say the Ghost Chile is one of the hottest peppers in the world combined with silky caramel, sounds right up  my alley!

Ajiri Tea – Kenyan Black Tea – The word ajiri means “to employ” in Swahili, and that’s the goal of Ajiri Tea: to create employment for women in western Kenya.  They were also the Sofi Gold winner in the innovation in Packaging Design or Function category.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company – This family won the Sofi Award and literally thanked the cows.  Gotta try this!

To see all the Sofi Gold Winner Click Here

One of my favorite parts of the show is the is the International ‘pavilions.’  Each country gets several devoted rows of booths to showcase their products.  It is clear that the Italians had the most robust set of showcases and most likely the first pioneers of getting their products to the United States.  I’d walk by and over-hear the Italian business transactions like the melody of an Italian love song.  That and anything to snatch another sample of cured meats and mozzarella cheese.  You know you’re in love with food when you can look at a hunk of cured meat and admire it’s beauty.

I had a really great time, and hopefully next year I will have more time to play around and visit more booths!  I’m sure I’ll be low on my free samples by then!

Isn't she beautiful!

Isn't she beautiful!

This was a great campaign for Principe Prosciutto, and I just love the pig.

Harry Potter made out of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans. Great branding for their Bertie Bott`s Brand.

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An Education in Caribbean Cusine

Whenever I travel I always try and take in the local cuisine, but on my recent trip to St. Thomas I was caught off guard by how much I would fall in love with the flavors of the Caribbean.  Aside from the Jamaican beef patty I had out of an NYC food truck, I don’t recall ever having real authentic Caribbean food.

After securing our red Jeep rental car we were headed straight to the beach.  I was traveling with my boyfriend Scott, who was familiar with the local St. Thomas hot spots including the beef pates of Highroon’s Mobile Truck along Brewer’s Bay.  Scott braced me for potential idea of eating out of a raunchy truck, how soon I reminded him that eating out of trucks in NY is part of a foodie initiation.

From the pictures you can see that the truck isn’t exactly up to health code standards but it didn’t bother me.  Once I took that first bite into the meat pate nothing seemed to matter except the juicy, meaty goodness tucked inside the deep fried dough pocket.  Highroon gave us each a chicken and and meat, both were delicious but the meat was clearly our favorite.

On the island of St. John right along North Shore Road, a popular tourist area sits Uncle Joe’s BBQ hut.  One man and about 4 or 5 other women (probably all family) run this roadside goldmine.   I’m not much of a rib girl, but this was fall-off the bone, sweet, tangy deliciousness that should not be missed.

While cruising the islands I picked up an abnormal amount of local hot sauces, a bottle of banana ketchup (which I’m still not sure what I’m going to use it for) and a bottle of spiced vinegar from Glady’s Cafe which I found purely on a whim from a tourist guidebook I got from the airport.  By the last day of our trip I was eager to get one last bite of some local flavor and Glady’s stewed chicken was the perfect send off.

At the airport newstand I was able to find a small recipe book which include both the pate, and stewed chicken.  I was happy to see that there were no foreign spices I needed to make these dishes at home, in fact they were everyday ingredients I already cook with!

Stay tuned as the little Italian girl gets her spice on, and re-creates these dishes at home.


Highroon's Mobile Truck

Chicken pate

Stewed chicken, spicy rice, mac and cheese and that little white potato is actually a sweet potato!

Me doing a taste test of Glady's hot sauces

Inside Glady's cafe, where the waitresses walk around singing Frank Sinatra

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Sausage Fest!

One of the first things my chef said when he was doing the sausage stuffing demo was, “There’s a pervert in every class, who’s it gonna be?”  Honestly, when it was all said and done, it was probably the most phallic cooking experience I’ve ever had…and kinda liked it!  First off, to learn how to make these little chunks of love was really interesting for me as the Bratwursts are always part of my Oktoberfest Celebration, and spicy Italian sausage is one of the pillars of my Italian food pyramid.  Also, after seeing the different varieties each team was making it was great inspiration to really be creative with your fillings.

Here are some photos from class:


The Spicy Italian Sausage mix, yes those white things are cubes of fat.











Grinding. The plastic over-top not only prevents your meat from flying out into unwanted areas of the table, but can also be fed through the grind to clean out the machine.











Getting the stuffer prepped with the casing...which is the lining of pig intestine.











Here he comes!! This was the Bratwurst, hence the pale pink color.











Sausage everywhere! Twisting them to create links reminded me of how you make balloon animals. I wonder if there is a connection...?











And our end product. A delicious sausage and pepper sandwich!

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10 Biggest Food Trends in 2010

The Daily Beast did a nice little slideshow about 2010 food trends.

Honestly some of these don’t surpise me: Comfort food, bacon sweets (although that bacon chocolate chip pancake mix looks amazing!)

Interesting find: Pickeling (maybe I should go back to DO and buy those jalapeno picked hard boiled eggs), Spicy snacks-Bring it!

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Sweet ‘n Spicy

For those who know me, know that I LOVE spicy flavors (My brother was even creative enough to sign me up for the“Hot Sauce of the Month Club”).  I may be a little late tspicyicecreamo the game on this but I just discovered Spicy Ice Cream!!  Creative flavors are springing up all over the place!  Cucumber, lime, chile or watermelon-jalapeno!  Or a thai chili with toasted coconut, cayenne and coconut milk!

An article from Serious Eats directed me to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream.  Check it out, really interesting flavor combos and using the freshest of local ingredients Yay!!


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