Monthly Archives: December 2011

The following is a guest post by Cesar

I am not exactly sure how the idea of black chili got into my head, since I have never made it before in my life. In fact, up until the moment it occurred to me (this afternoon), I wasn’t sure the dish even existed. A quick Google search returned links to recipes, but I refrained from reading them at length. I was pretty sure I could experiment enough to come up with what I could call black chili. The need to make something new took over me. I do have an existing relationship with white chili, and perhaps that’s why. White chili, the less acidic cousin of chili con carne, has become one of those dishes that I can make without a single bit of effort. It’s as easy as whistling. Navy, Great Northern beans, ground turkey and kale — hand those ingredients to me, and I can return within the hour with a bowl of white chili. So what was it about making black chili that piqued my interest?
Perhaps my upcoming travels to Madrid and Berlin are pressing me with the notions of wonder and the unknown at a subconscious level. By simply asking myself, “Does using a black bean make it black chili?” I was asking myself questions that probed my own notions of what it means to make something new.
I made up my black chili recipe using some of the ingredients I favor in my white chili recipe, namely beans, garlic, onion, and kale. Though some recipes I spotted online for black chilies called for tomatoes, I omitted them to curb the dish’s acidity and to also keep the color of the broth dark. Negro como un mole, is the soft mantra I told myself with this dish as I prepared it.
Black chili has a sharper, brighter taste than my white chili, so don’t let its moody color deceive you. This chili is a bit of a hybrid, after all. It calls for black beans, which are most favored in Mexican cooking, but in the end, it remains a blend of flavors that make it uniquely American. Black beans and extremely spicy foods will be hard to come by in Europe, and perhaps this is a way for me to build a memory of tastes from home before I begin my travels with Matt.
Notes: The use of seared red meat is meant to provide lots of flavor and fullness from the fat, but it can be made meatless as well, as long as you caramelize the onions and the garlic properly. This recipe being chili, I know you will ask if canned beans are okay. They are fine, but you’ll lose the brightness of the finished dish. If you choose canned, I recommend La Preferida brand.
* * *
Black Chili
1/2 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, diced
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon of dried piquin pepper (or any other dried chili to taste)
1 pinch cumin
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
Olive oil
A medium bunch of Lacinato Kale (other varieties like Russian and curly are also fine)
1 cup of dried black beans
1/2 lb sirloin steak
Cook the beans with 5 cups of water, a tablespoon of salt and a dash of vegetable oil for 40 minutes in a pressure cooker. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can also cook the beans following the soaking method, but be sure to only add salt for seasoning.
Once the beans are fully cooked lower the heat to a simmer. Make sure the steak is at room temperature. Heat up a griddle to a very high temperature. Place a drop of olive oil to see if it smokes, to make sure it’s hot enough. Sear the steak on both sides, making sure its surface turns a rich golden brown and the middle remains red or pink. Set aside and let sit for 10 minutes.
On the same pan, place a drop of olive oil, and place the garlic and onions to cook on medium heat. When they are golden brown and translucent, remove them from the heat and place in the pot of black beans.
Finely dice the kale, using the stems. Place in the pot and stir on medium-low heat. Using a sharp knife, dice the steak into very small pieces, and stir in the pot. Add the dried chili powder, cumin and vinegar. Continue to stir, and season with salt to taste. Continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Serve hot with a garnish of fresh kale. Add ribbons of Oaxaca cheese or oyster crackers, or eat alone for an all-in-one meal.

Tinned sweet red peppers, sharp cheddar cheese and mayonnaise. None of these things alone are terribly exciting. Pimento cheese, or “menta” cheese as you’ll hear it called in some parts of the South, is essentially a mixture of these three ingredients- any additions are a personal flourish that some might argue is a corruption of the true thing.

Pimento cheese is one of those dishes where the sum truly is greater than the parts. Each time I make the shopping list, I wonder why I’m spending time and money on such bland ingredients. As I get out the cheese grater and open the mayo, I doubt that anyone who likes food could possibly enjoy a spread in which these are two of the three key components.

And yet…

When you chop up the pimentos and add them to the cheese and mayo, something borderline magical happens: suddenly you have a dish that is completely unique in taste and appearance. It is a spread somehow worthy of plating and serving to other people…and it tastes really good. Such is the logic-defying deliciousness of this quintessential southern delicacy.

Is it the unholy power of salty cheese and mayonnaise, or is it alchemy?

Pimento cheese is traditionally served as a spread with crackers (I like wheat crackers or Triscuits), or used as a sandwich filling. In the second instance, don’t bother getting high quality bread. While pimiento cheese is great for summer picnics and the like, I also think it fits as an appetizer for holiday get-togethers. It’s probably the perfect side for tomato soup.

Note: while this can be made with just the three ingredients mentioned above, I like to add a few spoons of hot pepper relish and a dash of salt or worcestershire sauce, as suggested in the recipe below. Choosing the pepper relish is important: you can make your own or use a pre-made Sambal-style relish, but the key is to use one that won’t add too many additional flavors. You want it to be salty, hot and coarsely textured.

Pimento Cheese (a slightly spicier version)

Ingredients (enough for a party appetizer)

2 6 oz jars of pimento drained

1 pound of sharpest cheddar cheese

3 tbs best quality mayonnaise

3 tbs hot pepper relish

Salt or worcestershire sauce to taste


Grate the cheese coarsely or chop using a food processor. Dice the pimentos into small chunks and combine with the cheese in a large mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, blend together the mayonnaise, pepper relish and worcestershire sauce if you are using it.

Finally, fold the pepper and mayonnaise mixture into the grated cheese and pimentos with a spatula or spoon so that the cheese-pimento mixture is evenly coated. Some like to put all of this in a food processor to make it finer, but I like it to have texture so that you can distinguish cheese from pimento.

If you’re using it in sandwiches, spread the pimento cheese on slices sandwich bread and toast them lightly in a pan as if you were making a grilled cheese. Serve immediately.

Returning to Chicago is always wonderful but I never fail to overestimate the amount of stuff I can do while I’m here. The problem is that it’s hard to check off a to-do list when there are so many great people around, so many favorite bars and restaurants to visit and so many sites to see again.

Even though I’ve spent the majority of the last five months away, Chicago is still my home base. I wonder how long that assurance will last. If I do the traditional job-search this time in two years, I’ll be applying to positions in all sorts of places other than Chicago. I tell myself I’m ready for that, but then I come back and fall in love with my favorite things all over again: the things that make me feel grounded and stable. Such is the lot of an itinerant academic.

I’m not trying to sound bleak- there are plenty of people in my field who adopt a fatalistic attitude. I’ve been guilty of that myself at many points, but the more I speak to people both in and outside academia who are satisfied, the more I realize that these people have decided that they are capable of fashioning their own fate. For me, this means being between two cities at the moment and trying to do it in a way that is least disruptive to the non-research-related aspects of my life. In the future, it might mean taking serious stock of what really counts. What is most important at the end of the day?

Doing this blog has confirmed, at least, the importance of cooking – I’ve said this before but it’s good to put that in writing as much as possible.

Today it’s cheese straws. Truth be told, these are more twists than straws and they don’t resemble the cheese straws my mom makes – those are more dense and complex. This recipe, taken from the Canal House Cooking series, is shockingly easy to make though, and the payoff is absolutely satisfying. Cheese straws are a party food and December is a party-food kind of month, so the next couple of posts will be devoted to them.

Cheese Straws (recipe adapted from Canal House Cooking, Volume 2: Fall and Holiday)

Ingredients (for about 30 straws)

2 cups parmesan cheese, finely grated

2 sheets puff pastry, defrosted

Cayenne pepper


Preheat your oven to 375.

Clean and clear a flat surface on your counter. Dust the surface with a few sprinkles of the cheese and place the unfolded puff pastry on top. With a rolling pin, begin to roll out the puff pastry, flipping it every now and then and sprinkling the top with cheese as you go along. You want to work the cheese into the dough this process, and for each sheet you should end up using about one cup of the cheese. Continue rolling and incorporating the cheese until the dough is a mere 1/8 inch thick.

Next, use a pizza slicer or knife to cut the flattened sheet into strips about 1/3 of an inch across. Take each strip and twist either end so that it forms a cork-screw shape (see photo above). Then take these and arrange them on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper or lightly greased with butter.

Repeat the process with the other sheet of puff pastry and remaining cup of cheese.

Bake the straws in the oven until just golden, around 10-12 minutes, then open the oven and dust them with cayenne pepper and bake again for 1-2 minutes. Let the straws cool for a few minutes and then serve or stash. They’re best if used within a day.

It’s 6 AM here in Berlin and I’m packing my suitcase to head back to Chicago and eventually Auburn for the holidays.

Last Friday I let the revised draft of the first chapter go: sent out into the ether with a few clicks (oh how I love Dropbox). Do I feel good about how it reads? Not really. But, I’m glad it’s out there hovering for the moment. One thing I’m learning about this dissertation process is that it’s good to let things go sometimes simply for the purpose of moving on. Or, as my dad would say, “sometimes you have to turn Granny’s portrait to the wall.”

It’s been a Christmassy few days here and I did make it to my obligatory Weihnachtsmarkt on Saturday night. I went to two, actually. I also truly enjoyed Gluhwein for maybe the first time. Mulled wine isn’t my favorite drink in the world, but it was such a bitterly raw night that I can see why it became popular.

For those of you in Berlin- next time you go to the Neuköllner Weihnachtsmarkt in Rixdorf, get your food and drink in front of the butcher on Karl-Marx-Platz located outside the actual market. It’s cheaper than the stuff inside, and better! Then you can enter the throng buzzed from the first Gluhwein and refill as necessary.

Finally, today I have a suggestion rather than a recipe: invest in a decent piece of cheese every once in a while. Living off of grant budgets calls for thrift, and I’ve mostly eliminated such treats from my diet. I was reminded last weekend though how much a couple of extra Euros can go around here. Worth every cent.