Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ingredients: Ghost Chilis

Left to Right: Habaneros, Serranos, and Ghost Chilis
Earlier in the month, one of our Facebook friends very kindly offered to share her chili harvest with us so we could include them in some of our culinary adventures. We've tried to grow our own chilis here in California before but didn't have much luck. Unlike where we lived in Montana when we grew that fantastic vegetable garden that one summer, Monterey isn't all that great for growing things like peppers. It's not hot enough or dry enough. Our friend, on the other hand, lives in Arizona, so she didn't have that problem, as you can see from the picture above.

We were especially excited to try the ghost chilis so we could finally see what they're really like. We've seen all the food shows where people eat impossibly hot ghost chili chicken wings on a dare and we've seen all the YouTube videos where people eat the damn things whole and then proceed to wish for their own death on camera. We've certainly heard all the warnings about these things being the hottest chilis in the entire universe save for one or two others, so yeah.

Being the food nerd and professional content writer that I am, I've even done my fair share of personal research on ghost chilis and wasn't able to find much on them that wasn't equally discouraging. For instance, these things apparently aren't even considered fit for human consumption in countries like India. (In fact, they use ghosts as elephant repellent there.) Food bloggers and recipes that use ghost chilis also seem to be virtually non-existent, as hardly anyone save for the most hardcore of chili heads seems willing to try them.

I couldn't wrap my mind around something like a chili pepper truly being all that bad though. I mean... sure, I figured they were hot, but I didn't buy that they were impossible to cook with or that they didn't really have any merit as legitimate ingredients in real food people can actually enjoy. Seth and I have spent a little time lately getting to know ghost chilis though and now I'm here to record our findings for anyone else who'd like to try them as well, but would prefer to know what to expect first.

Ghost Chili Turkey Burger
For our first experiment, we tried fine-chopping a single ghost chili and adding it to a pound of ground turkey along with some basic seasonings to see how that went. (We're big believers in enhancing our hamburger mixtures with tasty extras, don't you know.) This burger was absolutely fantastic. Yes, the ghost chili added a lot of heat -- especially for being such a small pepper -- but I wouldn't say that it added so much heat, the average person who enjoys a spicy hamburger wouldn't have been able to tolerate it. We didn't cry or wind up with indigestion either.

Later in the week, Seth and I decided to turn up the dial a little bit, because we really do like our food pretty spicy and we're capable of handling a lot of heat. Seth scored some Kobe beef patties from the store and added two ghost chilis (along with onions, barbecue, and some other fixings) to them. Now... that was much hotter. Don't get me wrong. It was just right for us and certainly something other heat lovers might like to try, but probably a lot spicier than the average person would like.

I also put some of the ghosts -- along with some of the other peppers -- in a chili we made with the leftover scraps from our Christmas duck last night. It was a huge hit with Seth when it made it for Christmas for us a couple years back and... hey. You can't not make a chili when you have ghost chilis on hand. This was a pretty substantial pot of chili that involved two whole bags of dried beans, two jars of tomato sauce, and a double helping of chili seasoning, so I added two ghosts, three serranos, and a habanero. The heat level was awesome -- quite spicy, but honestly not so spicy that you felt like you could barely eat it.


As you can see from the heat scale above, ghost chilis are pretty far up there when it comes to actual heat units. (They're the same thing as "bhut jolokia", just FYI.) I've seen other charts that list one or two other really new, really rare peppers higher than ghost chilis, but for all intents and purposes, the only thing that's really spicier than a ghost is actual pepper spray. And yes, they're really fucking hot. 

However, I think it's worth noting as someone who's tried a bunch of the chilis from the upper end of the scale there, it's less that they're hotter than other peppers and more that they're hot in a different way, if that makes any sense. Peppers like ghosts and habaneros are spicier, so a little goes a long way, but they tend to add a heat that lingers at the back of your palate as far as the overall taste of your foods go and and they don't add as much to the overall flavor of the food. Jalapenos and other similar peppers seem to produce a heat that really demands center stage and is a bigger part of how the dish ultimately tastes. 

For that reason, I really like the hotter chilis for adding heat without overwhelming a dish flavor-wise. For stuffing and other purposes that will require consuming the pepper in larger amounts, something like a jalapeno or a poblano is generally going to be a better choice (although I personally do enjoy stuffing habaneros sometimes as well.) Ghost chilis in particular add a very distinctive "peppery" taste that actually reminds me a lot of the way Tabasco sauce tastes -- perfect for adding to chilis, Mexican dishes like enchiladas, or any other dish where you'd like to add a spicy, peppery note to the mix.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

On Non-Boring Christmas Dinners and Roasted Waterfowl

Duck in Progress
Man, the older I get the more quickly time really does fly. I still kind of can't believe that Thanksgiving has already come and gone, yet here we are on the day after Christmas. Cooking Christmas dinner was a fantastic mixture of fun and tiring as usual. That's what the holidays are really about to me though. There's genuinely nothing I'd rather do on Christmas Day than cook and enjoy a wonderful meal with loved ones.

Seth and I have really warmed up to this idea of having alternative roasting birds for Christmas dinner ever since we roasted our first duck the year before last. I know a lot of people just wind up cooking another turkey, but for me personally, the "time flies" factor makes Christmas feel a little soon for a repeat of something that generates a good two weeks' worth of leftovers. I always feel like we just had turkey... and roasted potatoes, summer squash, pumpkin pie, and all the rest of the things that tend to be Thanksgiving staples in our household. Having the same things for Christmas just feels really anticlimactic and a little boring.

Finished and Perfectly Roasted Bird
That's exactly why we were just so happy to be able to snag a duck for Christmas dinner. A lot of people seem to have the same exact idea about Christmas food that we do, because even though we tend to see ducks, geese, and other such things in the stores around the holidays, they disappear again super quickly. If you want one, you really need to grab it when you see it and sock it away in your freezer or something until the holiday gets here... and that's exactly what we did.

As you can see, the duck roasted up wonderfully and made us a really nice Christmas dinner. It was stuffed with a combination of apple, onion, orange, tangerine, and a multitude of herbs. We basted it with a little Burgundy a couple of times throughout the cooking process as well. We also tried to mix things up a little bit when it came to the sides. I made spicy duck gravy, olive oil and herb smashed red potatoes, habanero-serrano bread stuffing, sauteed broccoli-carrot medley, and steamed asparagus. It was fantastic!

I have to say I really like this idea of keeping with the tradition of roasting some kind of bird for Christmas and having stuffing, potatoes, and veggies as sides... but making some different choices or putting some new twists on things. It freshens things up and makes it feel like it's not just a Thanksgiving rewind, but it still feels like a "special", traditional, and festive meal as well. Next year, we're thinking we might want to do a prime rib for the first time. Or a capon, a goose, anything really. The possibilities are endless.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Chasing the Big Kahuna Burger

"Mmmhmm, that is a tasty burger!"
Every time we watch Pulp Fiction, our hearts ache a little bit at any mention of the fictional Big Kahuna Burger. Jack Rabbit Slim's is a close second, but man. Knowing that there's no such thing as Big Kahuna Burger while simultaneously watching Jules chow down on one and comment on its deliciousness has always been the biggest tease ever.

"Winston Wolf" Burger
Thankfully we're pretty imaginative and enjoy the challenge of creating real life versions of fictional items that we can enjoy just as much. Recently, Seth posted the above artwork on his Facebook page and it got us thinking that we were about due for some really, really, tasty, juicy burgers we could sink our teeth into, so Seth made us some. He named them "Winston Wolf burgers" in honor of his favorite character from Pulp Fiction itself.

We've had our eyes on these Kobe beef patties they carry at the grocery store we go to for a long while now, so we decided to go with those for the patty action here. Seth also picked us up some nice, fluffy sesame seed buns. 

As far as cheese goes, he combined a couple of options -- a little Velveeta (because there's just something about that that is so perfect for burgers when you're in the mood for comfort-style food) and some nice sharp cheddar we had on hand. We added some onions, greens, and a little barbecue sauce as well. We also used some fresh, homegrown habanero peppers we had on hand thanks to that wonderful Facebook friend I mentioned in my last post that sent us a sampling of her harvest this year for use in our various cooking adventures. 

My Burger (Complete With Barbecue Sauce)
Habaneros are seriously one of our favorite peppers to use period. Yes, they are hot... but in my opinion they are more flexible than some of the more popular options that people put in absolutely everything -- like jalapenos. Habaneros add heat... but not in a way that overpowers the other flavors you have going on in your dish and they're amazing in just about anything where you'd like a little spice -- meatloaf, burgers, spaghetti sauce, you name it. 

They're definitely something that needs a little more love and recognition in general. As it is, I think far too many people are just plain scared of them, as everyone is always talking about how over-hot they are. Here, Seth simply minced some of the fresh pepper and added it to the burger as you would any topping. I really have to say that they were fantastic and added a lot to the meal.

I was also really happy to be trying Kobe beef for the first time. I'm a cooking show junkie, so I've certainly heard a thing or two about it over the years for sure and had been wanting to experience it myself for a long while. I'd say it was definitely worthwhile -- very juicy, flavorful, and tasty. It's certainly a great choice if you're looking to make a burger that is really mouthwatering and delicious for sure. These were that and then some.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Deep Dish Sloppy Joe Pizza

Slice of Sloppy Joe Pizza
So, I finally got around to jumping on the bandwagon and trying one of those fantastic recipes that's always making the rounds on Pinterest. (You know, instead of just bookmarking it, promising myself I'd give a whirl, and then not actually doing it like usual.) It was a recipe for deep dish sloppy joe pizza from The Hopeless Housewife. 

Anyone who knows Seth and I personally also knows how we feel about comfort foods like pizza, burgers, sloppy joes, or pretty much anything else in that neighborhood. Meal ideas that are easy, quick, and convenient are even better. Even though we work at home, we often get really busy with work and other things. Plus, we're freelancers, so recipes that are economical and yield at least a couple of meals for the both of us are even more appreciated. This recipe really covered all the bases in a big, big way. If you like comfort food as well, you should really do yourself a favor and give this a try sometime.

I did make some changes to the original recipe I linked to above though. For one thing, I didn't make my sloppy joe mixture from scratch (although I'm sure that would be absolutely delicious). I used a pound of ground turkey and a can of Manwich sauce. I also added one small sauteed white onion and a sliced serrano chili for a little extra kick. 

The serrano added an especially nice dimension to the flavor. It almost made it taste a bit like Italian sausage, actually. I originally just added it because one of our Facebook friends decided to share her pepper harvest with us and sent us habaneros, serranos, and ghost chilis to try, so I figured... why not. The unique flavor of the serrano added so much though that I think I'll be doing that from now on. I would certainly recommend it to anyone else. Serranos would be awesome added to meatballs, meatloaf, or lasagna as well.

The finished pie... minus one slice.
I also decided to eliminate the use of the skillet and the broiler for the sake of my own convenience. What I did instead was spray the insides of a round, oven-safe dish with cooking spray and preheat the oven to 450 while I cooked the Manwich mixture for the filling. Once I had my pizza dough made, I formed it to the inside of the baking dish with my fingers (using plenty of extra flour to keep it from being sticky) and precooked the dough for a little while -- about 7 minutes -- until it was bubbly and nice just as specified in the original recipe. 

Once everything was ready, I piled the entire pound of sloppy joe mixture onto the crust and topped the whole thing liberally with a combination of mozzarella and asiago cheeses. I do mean liberally, so don't skimp on the cheese if you want to get the most out of this awesome recipe. Then pop your whole concoction back in the oven to bake. It's ready when the cheese is all bubbly and toasty on top just like in the pictures. We had ours in for about 15 minutes, so you can start there. Watch it closely though, as I'm sure ideal cooking times vary from oven to oven.

The results were really something pretty special. I mean... I expected to like this, but I don't know that I was expecting to be blown away by how absolutely delicious it was. Really, a little creativity and thinking outside the box transformed two easy, everyday staples that it's possible to become thoroughly sick of -- pizza and sloppy joes -- into something that I'd actually happily serve to guests, assuming they were into comfort food. 

I'm saying this as someone who has never really liked deep dish pizzas very much, too. Normally I can't stand thick crust on pizza and the deep dish varieties tend to be really soggy more often than not. That didn't happen with this. Precooking the crust seemed to seal it a bit and prevent that trademark sog from occurring. We were actually able to pick up our slices and eat them as we would normal pizza slices despite the fact that each was positively loaded with sloppy joe filling and cheese. We also got two whole meals out of this for two people.

It was just really, really good on every level possible and I'm looking forward to experimenting with other versions of this same concept -- deep dish taco pizza, Bolognese-style deep dish pizza, and so forth. The possibilities are endless!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My First McNuggets as an Adult

McNuggets and fries with BBQ sauce... awwww, yeah!

My lifelong relationship with food is probably only more evidence when it comes to my existence as a completely backward person. Everyone knows that kids are picky eaters as a rule and I wasn't really any exception. However, I was pretty much the polar opposite of most kids when it came to the actual items I enjoyed. In other words I hated the types of food that most kids thought were manna from heaven. Bologna and American cheese sandwiches with yellow mustard? Oh, hell no. Macaroni and cheese? Don't make me barf. Chef Boyardee canned pastas? You had to be kidding me. Other favorite options like pizza, hot dogs, and grilled cheeses got maybe a "meh" reaction from me at best.

I liked my food pretty plain and basic the way a lot of kids do, but I preferred things that I guess people consider to be more adult tastes. I absolutely loved carb-tastic foods like baked potatoes, pasta, and bread. I liked a variety of cheeses like Cheddar, real mozzarella, Gouda, Provolone, and Monterey Jack. I was really into seafood of pretty much all kinds, especially trout, salmon, shrimp, and those little fried clams you can sometimes get your hands on. I was also really nuts about a lot of vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. My absolute favorite thing to eat under the sun was a big bowl of black-eyed peas and at times, I liked nothing better than a nice, crunchy carrot to gnaw on for a snack. Hell, that's still one of my favorite snacks!

When I got older, I started branching out when it comes to the foods I ate, just like most people... except I wound up kind of moving in reverse. Trying new things meant actually going backward and revisiting some of those staples that characterized most people's childhoods, but not necessarily mine. I was actually surprised at the way I was able to really enjoy some of it. I didn't fully appreciate how tasty a bowl of mac and cheese or a slice of pepperoni pizza could really be until I was almost 30. Until Seth fed it to me, I'd never so much as tasted a piece of Velveeta cheese. Now I actually love those things... and they have a certain magic about them that feels unique because I fell in love with them for the first time as an adult. It's not a nostalgic thing, but many of those foods do strike a very basic, comfortable cord with me nevertheless.

Fast food is a special type of animal that was almost as mystifying for me as the mac and cheese or Velveeta was for the majority of my life. We were rarely given fast food in my household growing up and it certainly wasn't considered an appropriate choice on par with a fresh, homemade meal. On the rare occasion I was given the option of eating it, I didn't want to. I was used to juicy, home-grilled burgers like the ones my dad made... or lean, roasted chicken breast like we'd get for dinner every so often. McDonald's cheeseburgers and Chicken McNuggets seemed like nasty, bastardized versions of the real foods I was used to, so unlike most kids including my younger brother, I hated them.

I've come to understand their appeal as an adult though. While I still don't consider fast food to be something acceptable for eating on a regular basis, I do kind of get what people like so much about it. Sometimes it just feels good to stuff your face with something crispy, greasy, salty, and not that great for you... especially when you're super hungry. For that reason, I've come to embrace the occasional lunch at Burger King, Taco Bell, or Carl's Jr. as a welcome and relatively inexpensive departure from the norm.

I actually ate at McDonald's for the first time over the weekend. Seth and I have been looking to lose a couple of pounds and get in better shape over all, so we've been making it a point to get off our computers on the weekend and take the occasional walk to the beach or at least around the neighborhood. However, we still allow ourselves a treat once in a while, because what the hell is life for if it isn't punctuated with delicious things to eat. On Saturday, we decided to stop in at McDonald's. I honestly don't remember the last time I ate more than a stray hash brown or apple pie from McDonald's before that, so it was kind of an adventure for me.

I actually decided to get some McNuggets and fries for the first time since I was a child... and I loved it, actually! I don't remember liking McNuggets that much as a kid, but I have no idea why. These things are so crispy and tasty. They definitely satisfy that occasional urge you get to enjoy a cheap, guilty pleasure that you don't have to cook for yourself. Are McNuggets my idea of premium, high quality chicken? Well, of course not... but that doesn't make them any less delicious, really. I can honestly say that I do get the appeal of McDonald's now and that enjoyed every bite of the process. I'm looking forward to my next adventure there for sure.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Confessions of a Proud Omnivore

I live in California, so naturally I've run into more than a few people in my lifetime that were all about vegetarianism to one extent or another. Each of these people had their separate reasons for their choice. Some didn't believe in participating in an industry that involves harming animals in any way. Others were doing it in an attempt to lose weight, be healthier, or feel younger. Still more were doing it because their spouse or all their family members had decided to go vegetarian, which for all intents and purposes made them a vegetarian as well... unless they wanted to start making all their own meals, that is.

Needless to say, I've heard more than my share of sales pitches for vegetarianism. Each time, the person delivering theirs thought they were going to be the one to finally convince me to change my evil, meat-eating ways once and for all... and each attempt resulted in a very disappointed vegetarian. I'm an omnivore and I always will be -- just as nature intended. I refuse to apologize for it to anyone either.

However, more than a few people who have really known what my stance is on this issue over the years have asked me why. Since it's definitely time to update this particular blog, I figured that this might not be a bad time to record a few thoughts on the issue.

Being omnivorous is what nature intended.

Vegetarians who know I'm an animal lover often try to pull at my heartstrings by pointing out the many ways eating meat makes me a hypocrite in their eyes. They think that someone who truly respects all life and wants to be at one with God's creation the way I claim to surely wouldn't want to continue contributing to an industry that survives by killing animals and chopping them up into juicy little pieces for human consumption. They aren't usually prepared for the fact that respect for God's creation and the natural order of things is at least a small part of why I eat meat without feeling the least little bit bad about it.

Vegetarians can claim that humans aren't meant to be meat eaters all they want, but that won't make it true. Human beings were created to be omnivores, meaning they were designed to subsist on a diet that includes both vegetable matter and meat... not vegetables alone. The proof lies in the way our bodies and teeth were designed, as well as in the way it's so damned hard for someone who cuts meat out of their diet altogether to stay properly nourished. Now humans can certainly choose not to be omnivores for whatever reason floats their boat, but that won't change the fact that natural omnivores are exactly what they are.

At the end of the day, vegetarianism is an alternative choice that isn't and never will be right for everyone. It's certainly not right for me. Contrary to popular belief, I don't eat meat at every meal. I eat and enjoy many dishes that actually are vegetarian or even vegan. However, I'm really not my healthiest if I'm not eating enough protein for whatever reason and... sorry, but tofu and peanut butter just isn't a solid enough substitute for at least some chicken or fish.

Becoming a vegetarian won't save the planet.

Someone deciding that they're not going to eat a delicious piece of grilled chicken breast or a steak isn't going to magically make the animal it came from any less dead by turning up their nose at the resulting deliciousness, so really the whole "I'm saving animals" argument doesn't even hold water. There are always going to be people who prefer to do as nature intended and eat meat or animal products instead of living on tofu and salad. The meat industry isn't going anywhere for that reason and it's completely unrealistic to think that it's possible to simply convert everyone on the planet to some restrictive vegetarian lifestyle that goes completely against nature.

Also, what about plants? Plants are living things as well, you know. Actually, everything edible and digestible was alive once. That's how this whole life thing works, you know. Life consumes life... always. Why is it evil to eat a chicken or a cow, but not a carrot or a head of lettuce? Carrots and heads of lettuce are still alive and I'm quite sure they'd like to continue being alive. Vegetarians exist because they eat, break down, digest, and process living things just like omnivores. They're just doing it in a way that differs from what nature originally intended for reasons of their own.

Restrictive diets suck, plain and simple.

Really, life puts enough restrictions on me as it is. I have to spend most of my time performing soul-sucking tasks for other people in order to earn a living. I have to be considerate of other people even in the event they're assholes that I'd rather punch square in the face. I even have to put on pants if I want to go out in public. I'll be damned if I'm going to put limitations on myself when it comes to one of the few areas of life where I can do more or less whatever I want.

I sometimes put on a little extra weight or get sick just like anyone else, but all in all I'm a relatively healthy person. I eat pretty healthfully for the most part as well since the mac and cheese, bacon cheeseburgers, and loaded pizzas I talk about so often are once-in-a-while treats, as opposed to staples. There is absolutely no reason in the world why I need to stop eating meat and... honestly speaking? I never will.

Really, I spent five miserable years married to strict vegetarian who tried repeatedly to show me the error of my ways. My mom is on this vegan kick these days and has tried to turn me onto giving up meat as well. If people I was that close to on a daily basis for years couldn't convince me to change my ways, the likelihood of strangers doing it with their flimsy arguments against meat eating is pretty slim.

........

If I absolutely have to put a label on my dietary habits for the sake of clarity, I would probably say I'm best described as a flexitarian. I actually do eat many meals that are vegetarian and there are even whole days that don't see me touching so much as a mouthful of shredded chicken. I really love vegetables and whole grains like brown rice or barley. I love light meals, too. However, I also love seafood, pizza, and ham sandwiches. I adore a good pulled pork sandwich, a cheeseburger, or a hot dog once in a while. Special occasions and treats in particular are all about food for me and very often, that food includes meat or animal products in some way, shape, or form. I have zero problem with that and I can assure you that  nature doesn't either.