Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. ~ CK Chesterton

Howdy Yall! It's time to lick your lips and drool as we discuss yummy vittles and Texas testaments to taste!

I hope you enjoy your time with us. Please be sure to drop by and leave a message or a hello. We want to know how to better serve you!

~Blue Zebra

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chili, The National Dish of Texas

Chili almost qualifies for an entire food group for the majority of Texans. We’ve eaten it as a stand alone spicy stew and as a garnish or gravy that completes many Tex Mex specialties. We have chili cook-offs and chili teams and Pace for goodness sake, the creators of the home chili kit, Wick Fowler’s Two-Alarm Chili. We Texans eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.

Imagine how odd and out of place I sometimes felt. I spent most of my life thinking I hated chili. I’m from Texas so you can imagine that was almost unheard of…it was sacrilege! I could deal with small amounts of the “gravy” portion but could not handle the meat that went with it.

There used to be a commercial on television as I was growing up. A complete campaign for the Wolf Brand Chili company and it asked the viewer, “When was the last time you had a great big steaming bowl of Wolf Brand Chili?”

And I would always race to answer, “Not nearly long enough!” Of course, their answer was, “Well that’s too long!” In one entire can of chili, if there was one piece of gristle or tripe or tendon lurking in its brick red depths, it was destined to end up in my bowl, on my spoon and in my mouth. Uggh. Dinner over!

I hated canned chili and until Wick Fowler came out with 2-Alarm Chili where you could add you own hamburger, you could threaten me with just about anything and I would still decline to eat it. Not even Wick could save the day if Mom announced she intended to use “chili grind” meat. You see, “chili grind” is a coarse setting for grinding meats and it results in chunks of gristle landing in your bowl, on your spoon and in…déjà vu. So chili grind was just not allowable in my book!

It wasn’t until I was grown and gone and Mom “discovered” an incredible recipe for chili-red as Dad liked to call it. The recipe called for using pork shoulder, cubed and browned in oil with re-hydrated chile peppers and onions, cooked until meltingly tender. I fell in love with that chili but boy howdeeeee! She and Dad sure made it look like a bunch of hard work to make. So I deferred learning to make it.

Dad died almost 15 years ago and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I first took a stab at this dish, but I had to do it my way and that meant using good old Texas beef in place of the pork. After all, the American cowboys didn’t cook chili on pig drives, no, they were cattle drives! So I really doubted that they used pork unless they ran across a very unfortunate javelina (which was a real possibility)! I also found it was much less trouble to make than it had first appeared to my inexperienced eyes.

My authentic Texas Chili is sheer perfection in a bowl. This isn’t Wolf Brand Chili. It’s not Midwestern Chili. This is real Texas chili like the old trail bosses or Chili Queens of San Antonio used to make over a hundred years ago. It’s a purist concoction of meat, dried and fresh chiles and spices that will leave tears of gratitude rolling down your face. And nary a piece of gristle or tendon in sight!

Historically, chili was a method of wet cooking tough cuts of meat out on the trail. The spices and chili peppers helped kill the bad or “off” tastes of spoiling meat or meat on the edge of turning and also helped kill any bad bacteria. The wet stewing method helped tenderize the toughest saddle leather and worked great with many sides like tortillas, biscuits, rice, beans (never in the chili, please - that’s a hanging offense in Texas) and also with Tex Mex dishes such as chili rellenos, chili and eggs, cheese enchiladas with chili gravy, tacos and more.

Beans have no place in real Texas chili! The old fashioned, purist chili of the old timers won’t even have tomatoes. So in the true spirit of the dish, I took Mom and Dad’s Chili recipe and adapted it to the most extreme purist form. What you get is a spicy stew so thick with delicious, rich red sauce it doesn’t even need to be thickened with the masa harina (ground corn flour) typical of Texas chili. But you add it anyway to get the taste of the dish so familiar to us all.

The next time you get a hankerin’ for real, old fashioned, authentic Red. Give the national dish of Texas a try. I guarantee you will sit up and sing The Eyes of Texas by the time you scrape and lick the last morsel of brick red goodness from your bowl.

Authentic Texas Chili
By Blue Zebra
Yield 10-12 bowls of chili

2 Large Onions, peeled and chopped
8 Cloves Garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup Olive Oil, Lard, or Bacon Grease
7 Dried Red Ancho Chiles, washed, stemmed, seeded
5 Dried Red New Mexican Chiles, washed, stemmed, seeded
3 Dried Red Guajillo Chiles, washed, stemmed, seeded
2 Jalapeno Peppers, stemmed, chopped with seeds (fresh)
4 # Beef Chuck Roast, trimmed, boned, and 1” cubes or Ground Chuck
2 tsp granulated garlic powder
2 Tbsp Cumin, ground (preferably from toasted cumin seeds)
1 Tbsp Oregano, leaves (preferably Mexican oregano)
1 Tbsp Coriander, ground (preferably from toasted coriander seeds)
2 Tbsp Dried Onion Flakes
1/4 tsp Cayenne pepper
Water to cover meat
1 Tbsp Kosher Salt
1 Tbsp Black Pepper
1/4 cup Masa Harina


In medium sized saucepan over medium heat, place stemmed, seeded, dried chiles. Cover pods with water. Bring chiles to a slow simmer and reduce heat. Stir occasionally to redistribute chile peppers under the water. Simmer gently for 20-30 minutes.

Trim and cube the chuck roast into 1” dice or alternately, you can use ground chuck hamburger grind (or chili grind if you are fearless and don’t mind a bit of gristle here or there).

In small saute pan, toast the cumin and coriander seeds until you can smell the oils of the seeds. Be careful not to burn them. I stir constantly, use a dry pan and cook over medium heat. Once toasted, pour into a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices. Alternately, you can use a morter and pestle or molcahete to grind the seeds into spice.

Using paper towels, blot moisture from the meat. Season the meat with a little of the salt, black pepper, ground cumin, ground coriander and garlic powder.

Heat skillet or cast iron dutch oven over high heat and add 1/3 of the grease being used. Add 1/3 of the seasoned meat and quickly sear and lightly brown the meat. Remove from pan and add the next portion of oil. Let the pan heat up again and add the next 1/3 of the meat. Continue with this method until all the meat is browned and set aside. (Note: Each stove is different. You will have to get a feel for how hot your stove cooks. You want just enough heat to brown the meat, instead of boiling or sweating it in juices. This means you need a hot enough pan that the juices emitted from the meat evaporate from the heat in the pan as quickly as they are released, allowing the meat to brown on the outside. Check to make sure you are browning the meat and not burning the bottom of the pan. The meat will still be raw in the center. Remove beef to a Dutch oven and hold until vegetables are cooked. Be sure to add all of the drippings from the beef.

Add chopped onion and garlic to the skillet used to cook your meat and sauté over medium heat until vegetables are tender and the onion has begun to turn translucent.

Add the vegetables to the meat in the Dutch oven. Deglaze the skillet with a ladle of chile cooking water and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. These browned bits are called fond. They add flavor to the dish.

Remove the now cooling peppers from the chile water and drain them in a colander. Reserve the cooking water that is being drained off and any chile water left in the sauce pan. This liquid will be added back to the meat mixture when you cook the chili.

Place chile pods into the bowl of your food processor fitted with the knife blade or place them into your blender. Add a couple of ladles of the chile water and blend or pulse processor until chiles form a loose paste. At this point it’s up to you. I like to strain my chile mixture through wire mesh strainer. This keeps the course skin separate from the smooth paste of the flesh and the liquid from the chiles. The skin can be tough and sometimes bitter. But straining is not strictly necessary, if you are trying to save time.

Add the chile puree to the meat mixture. Add remaining chile water to the point where the meat and vegetables are covered. Turn heat to medium and bring up to a slow simmer. Adjust heat to maintain slow simmer. Do not boil. (This should be about low to medium low to maintain a simmer.)

Mix all seasonings except salt in a small bowl. Add 1/2 of the seasoning at the beginning of cooking the chili. As the chili cooks, taste and add more seasoning if you like. Add salt about 3/4 of the way to done. Chili will cook about 2-3 hours over low to medium low heat or until chuck is tender and falling apart and all portions of the “broth” are a cohesive red color. Adjust salt as necessary at end of cooking.

As the chili cooks, the moisture will evaporate. Keep adding a little of the chili water or plain tap water to the mixture to keep it from evaporating too much. The object is to condense the “stew” but still leave enough moisture to make a thick, liquid broth.

Combine the masa harina with 1/2 cup water and shake in covered jar. Shake until well combined and smooth, no lumps. While chili is at a gentle simmer, add masa slurry, stirring continually until well combined. Masa will thicken the chili slightly and add the distinctive flavor associated with Texas red chili.

Serving suggestions:
Chili with oyster crackers
Chili with cheese and onions and saltine crackers
Chili over rice
Chili and eggs
Chili spaghetti
Chili cheese enchiladas
Chili relleno
Taco Salad
Chili Dogs
Chili Burgers
Chili Mac

Blue Zebra NOTE:
I usually cook my chili out on my propane grill or in my oven. I set the temperature to about 300 degrees and allow it to cook with the lid on for about 3 hours. I stir it and check the liquid level about every 20 minutes or so. This keeps it from sticking on the bottom of the pan and allows enough long, slow cooking time for the meat to tenderize and fall apart. You want the meat to be “fork tender” and the broth to be rich and thick on its own.

Stay tuned for the Ultimate Chili Dog, The National Sandwich of Texas!

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Monday, September 10, 2007

A Perfect Set of Buns!

I know, I know, mille apologies for taking so long to put the newest post together, but once you see the subject you will understand. Some posts just take longer than others. And when you are dealing with perfection, well the extra time should be understandable. Perfection does not come quickly!

Have you ever wished you had perfect buns? I know I have! For the first time it’s possible for millions of cooks to feel the confidence that having firm, good looking buns gives and it won’t even require a torture device hawked by Suzanne Sommers to
get them! All it takes is a little swirl here, a flourish there and a nice stretch or two. Give it a little time and “Bob’s your uncle.” You will have a set of buns that will make you the envy of the neighborhood.

Of course there’s a secret or two involved in the process, but nothing too strenuous and certainly nothing too mentally

taxing. I only know that once you experience them for the first time it will change your life. You will leap tall buildings at a single bound, sing and tip-toe through a verse of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. I can guarantee once you see how simple it is to have the loveliest buns on Wysteria Lane, you will never again seek to buy them.

I must give credit where credit is due. I didn’t invent the perfect buns. Again, the credit must go to my friend, Bill Wraith, a most excellent baker who is an incredible scientist and teacher. I have seen three people including myself reproduce gorgeous buns so am convinced this recipe is one for success and pure brilliance. Let’s face it, having inferior buns can completely ruin the appearance of many dishy showstoppers. So don’t let it happen to you.

The Perfect Buns
By Bill Wraith
Methodology amended by Blue Zebra
Yield 10-12 buns

650 grams AP Flour (22.831 oz
290 grams Water (10.186 oz)
200 grams Milk (7.025 oz)
30 grams Olive oil (1.054 oz)
13 grams Salt (2.75 tsp)
1 package active dry yeast (2-1/4 tsp)

Mix flour, water, milk together until it looks like a shaggy mess. Let it sit for 20 minutes. This is considered the autolyse period. It is the period when gluten begins to form and the flour becomes fully hydrated from the liquid components of your recipe.

Perform a frissage movement on the dough. Using the heel of your hand, smear walnut size pieces of dough along the counter in order to break up any clumps left in the dough. Frissage also helps to continue the gluten development begun with the autolyse phase.

This recipe is very forgiving. I accidentally missed my 25 minute timer for the autolyse and let it go a full hour. You can see the yeast were particularly active and the dough rose! No problems. I simply degassed the dough (pressed out all the air), and continued with the next step of kneading.

It's time to knead in the remaining ingredients. Start by kneading in the yeast until completely incorporated. After the yeast, knead in salt and olive oil, again, folding and kneading until completely worked throughout dough. Knead dough about 5-10 minutes. This is a large window of variability. I knead by hand and usually knead in 3-5 minute increments. Nothing harsh, just a smooth rolling motion of the dough.I will often cover the dough with the top of a bowl and let it rest for about 15 minutes, then return and knead another 3-5 minutes. Letting the dough rest between kneading episodes does a couple of things. It allows gluten to continue developing as the dough relaxes between sessions. Resting allows the temperature of the dough to diminish, since the friction from kneading causes the temperature to rise in the dough.

Once the dough reaches the window pane stage*, it is ready to undergo bulk or primary fermentation. This is about a one to one and a half hour timespan when the dough is coming close to doubling for the first time and when flavors are developing.

During the bulk fermentation timeframe, I will perform anywhere from 2-4 sessions of the Stretch N Fold in order to further increase the dough strength. Increasing the strength of the dough allows the gluten strands to trap flavor components and CO2 gas within it's protein web, which causes the dough to rise.After the dough doubles for the first time, turn out the dough and scale it. Scaling means to portion the dough into units. You can use a scale for extra accuracy or eyeball it. Roll the dough into balls for hamburger buns or ropes for hotdog buns. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the buns to rise a final time. I use parchment paper to place the final bun dough on for rising and cooking. I also make sure that by the time the buns are fully risen prior to cooking, their sides will lightly touch. This way, they will have two soft surfaces on the sides.

Cook buns for 10-15 minutes at 460 degrees F. Buns will have a great oven spring (that means they will rise significantly in the oven). As soon as the buns are done (about 205degrees F internal temperature), place them in a plastic bag and allow them to cool slightly. The bag will trap steam and make the outer surface soft instead of crispy. Use immediately for best results.

Buns can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Blue Zebra NOTE:
This recipe is very forgiving and easy. Errors and time lapses still result in great tasting bread. You can really feel the dough change dimension as you knead it. It's excellent for beginner bakers. If you have 30 active minutes to cook, make these buns. They cost about $1.00 for all of them and the taste is so far superior to store bought buns.

Another thing to note...I added all the ingredients during the so-called "autolyse" period. Purists and professional or artisan bakers would spank me on this telling me in no uncertain terms that I did not use an "autolyse" period if I added salt, oil, and yeast. Autolyse, technically speaking, is only the stage where liquid and flours are allowed to mix and marry and become fully hydrated. But again, I want time saving and I doubt very seriously if the sophistication of my palette will be able to notice the difference. So far, I have not noticed any delay of yeast performance or impeeded risings because of doing this, which leads me to believe even more, that yeast and risen doughs are more forgiving than anyone gives them credit for being!
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