Probably the worst habit I developed in the years that I spent approximating the culinary arts while living alone was the regular reliance upon the “Chili & Tots” dinner of pathetic losers who will spend the evening watching Red Dwarf by themselves. This meal was extremely sad by any measure of what one calls “food”: heat up a bag of extremely cheap tater tots in your death-trap of an electric oven, microwave a 79¢ can of generic brand chili purchased from the corner store you walked past on the way home, grate whatever cheese happens to be lying around, and cry.
No person on Earth could ever defend this meal as being “worth it,” no matter how cheap it actually ended up being. However, up until very recently, this was a staple of my diet. I ate this meal probably once a week, always falling back on the, “I don’t know how to cook,” excuse for why I was slowly killing myself. My girlfriend loved asking me what I had for dinner on the nights she went out, only because she knew the answer and seemed to love needling me about this horrible habit.
So, when she made Sweet Potatoe Chili for us one night, I knew that I had to figure out how to do this myself. I had lived with a roommate who would regularly make an amazing chili (served in home-made bread bowls), and while I longed for something delicious and amazing like that, I was instead eating dreck that dogs would have doubts about eating. I was determined to add chili to my repertoire, if only so I could feel better about my nights alone.
Last night was my third attempt at making chili. I made it twice before while visiting family last week; once because my girlfriend had just given me the recipe to share with my sister, and again because we had bought all the fixin’s and there were leftovers. While both batches were eaten with few complaints, I was convinced that I could do better at home with a fairly well stocked kitchen and plenty of cooking implements (like the one my girlfriend keeps). Since she was at the theater last night, I knew it was time to throw together some bachelor chow.
I decided to use the Crockpot, and this is where I learned my first lesson: You can never give yourself “too much time” when cooking with a Crockpot. This might be a no-brainer for experienced cooks, but as I was standing over it, ravenous, after only a few hours, waiting while the potatoes softened up, it occurred to me that there was a reason the recipe was for stove cooking. While I’m glad I learned this the hard way, I realize that in the future, I will have to get started just after breakfast to be successful the next time around. In this case, cooking longer = better.
Since this was my third time, I sort of improvised a little, and I think this helped. Rather than use the prescribed amounts, I basically chopped up whatever I thought would be good in a chili, and threw it in a pot of chicken stock. (I probably could have used vegetable stock, but we were out.) Lots of tomatoes, lots of onion, lots of potatoes, and a little bit of a bunch of other things. I used chili powder, cumin, and white pepper powder (with a few sprinkles of pasilla powder). I don’t know much about spices, but I seem to really like white pepper powder. I let this stew for a while, stirring and cursing myself for not starting sooner.
The second thing I learned this time around is: You absolutely need to start tasting things as you go. My view of cooking seems to have come from dim memories I have of a food handling class I took when I was 18, and I have a vague memory of some rule that stated that you shouldn’t eat any part of the food that you’re making for other people to eat. (I think there was a sanitary component to this.) I’m sure, now, that I must have misunderstood this, because every cook I talk to says that they taste everything as they go, right up to the point just before they put it on a plate. So this time I took this advice (thanks again to my girlfriend), and started tasting the chili once it looking like it was warm enough. This worked out, as I discovered that the spice level mentioned in the recipe was for absolute pussies.
This was also the first time there was some serious splash-back during the cooking process, dirtying up the shirt I was wearing. The third thing I learned this time: You shouldn’t cook in a t-shirt that you don’t want to get stained. Someone who has been cooking for a long time is laughing at me right now, but this had never happened to me before.
Had I used the vegetable stock, I could have stopped right there and it would have been vegan and / or veggie friendly. However, I cooked and added a bunch of ground turkey. I’ve been on a non-beef kick lately, and I seem to be enjoying it quite a bit. When I was absolutely sure I couldn’t wait any longer (it had only been a handful of hours), I put some tots in the oven, baked them, and began to dish up dinner. I wanted to make corn bread with jalapeños and coconut milk in it, but I forgot to get a corn bread kit at the store, and I didn’t feel like trying to hunt some down by the time it occurred to me.
I think the results were okay. Obviously, it could have cooked longer, and by the time I was ready for bed, the chili really looked like it would be great. (I bet lunch today is gonna be rad.) I also think it could have been a little spicier, so I would love to get any recommendations of chili spices, and which ones offer what kind of flavor combinations. (Thoughts, anyone?) I would also like to try a vegan version, just to see what it is like, too. Any alterations on this kind of recipe would be greatly appreciated.
In the end, this was absolutely the most satisfying batch of chili I’ve eaten with tots alone in my apartment.