Monday, March 2, 2009

Pantry Blessings

Today I return to form, complete with a recipe! Even more exciting, I’m happy to report that my official medical status has been upgraded from worrisome to doctor-declared good. My mental health is also on the upswing. After years of contemplating it, I finally started short-term counseling through Northwestern University’s Counseling and Psychological Services and I must say, I love it. My therapist has been great and I already feel like we are making progress. I feel healthy again. “Healthy” is my favorite word. Dear reader, I hope you’ll accept my vague but happy update. I’m going to reserve some privacy because these issues are too personal to discuss in detail here. I’m also a little shy with acquaintances. But now that I’m glowing with health again, I’m ready to turn my attention back to the food. Are you ready? Let’s go!

Now is quite the moment in time to be entering the job market. The Current Economic Climate (or CEC, as Matt likes to call it) makes me want to hide in my pantry until this whole recession business gets tidied up. I’m not on the market yet; my graduation date is very tentatively scheduled for August 2009. I should be excited about graduating, and deep down inside maybe I am, but right around the corner from graduation is a much bigger rock to climb: unemployment. My (current and tentative) long-term plan is to complete a 3-4 year postdoctoral research fellowship and then hit the job market to find a teaching position at a school like Albion College, the place that nurtured me for four years. But I have yet to find a lab in which doing a postdoc sounds appealing; right now it sounds like prison, or maybe purgatory at best. Why is my postdoc job search coming up empty? Is it because I’m burned out on graduate school? Is it because I don’t really want to do a postdoc? I can’t tell the difference between those two possibilities. All I know is that deep winter is a bad time to make life decisions if you live in Chicago. So for now, I’ve decided to put the postdoc job search on hold for a little while and instead, I’m working on Plan B: work outside of academia for a while, maybe earn some cash, and spend some time staring at Lake Michigan while I figure out what’s really in my heart.

I’m not certain how that second part, the part about earning cash, is going to pan out. After all, the CEC is not favorable for cash-earning. The CEC is rather favorable for staying inside my kitchen and hiding in the pantry. I think I’m in good company here: if you weren’t poor before the stock market crashed, I bet you feel poor now! I know I do, and I wasn’t rich before the market crashed. So while cash-earning is still a priority (hello, exam-grading for $20 an hour!), I’m also attempting to trim my budget just a smidge. This is hard: my food indulgences are tied to my values, and I hardly see the worth in buying lower-quality food in which the true cost can’t be scanned by the price checker in Jewel. I believe in organic dairy and produce. I believe in fresh fruits and vegetables. I just can’t compromise when it comes to my groceries. How can I sell my future health for a few extra dollars in my pocket now? I just can’t do it, CEC be damned.

Are you also hiding from the CEC in your pantry? Yes? Wonderful! While you’re in there, can you pull out the ingredients for today’s recipe? You should be able to find most of them tucked inside, waiting patiently to be sautéed and stirred into the tastiest chili north of the Texas border. It takes a certain amount of cowgirl swagger to utter those words, but I stand by what I say. Remember what George Strait says about cowgirls?

How ‘bout them cowgirls?
Boys, ain’t they somethin’?
Sure are some proud girls
And you can’t tell them nothin’

I love George Strait. But he ain’t kiddin’ about his cowgirls, and shouldn’t every cowgirl have a kick-ass chili recipe up her sleeve? Even if her sleeve is neither flannel nor flecked with bits of hay?

Today’s recipe is a variation of Moosewood’s Red, Gold, Black, and Green Chili. I love this particular chili because it just gets everything right: the textures, the flavors, the spices, the heat. It also comes together quickly, so quick, in fact, that I can make it on a weeknight after work, which always feels like a small miracle to me. It also has a little twist to it: bulgur, cooked in the juices from a can of tomatoes. The bulgur adds a nice chewy texture, and it builds a whole grain right into the pot of chili. This recipe is also very flexible and therefore amenable to pantry-based substitutions. For example, I find it mind-boggling that chili, a quintessentially cold-weather dish, often calls for fresh bell peppers, an August vegetable if there ever was one. The fresh bell peppers I find now in the market have been grown in places like Mexico. Those peppers have traveled a long, long way from Mexico to Chicago to my chili pot, and after a summer of eating locally grown peppers, I feel kinda funny buying them now. I’m certainly not boycotting them, but I do wonder what I might do differently. The pantry offers us the perfect solution: jarred roasted red peppers. Isn’t the pantry awesome? Or you might even be able to pull your own roasted red peppers out of the freezer if you put some up before the bell peppers disappeared from the farmer’s market. (In which case, you get a gold star for kitchen achievement. Good job!)

So let us creep out of the pantry, canned goods and some onions in hand, ready to fire up the stove. Let us forget about the CEC for half an hour while we sauté, simmer, and breathe deep, spicy breaths filled with onion and garlic. Let us eat dinner on the cheap while we put a nice down payment on our happiness, counting our blessings alongside our pennies. If you are healthy and your life is interwoven with that of people you love and who love you, then you are one of the wealthiest people I know. There is room for you at my table. I’ll save you a seat and a bowl of chili.

Moosewood Chili
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home
Serves 4-6 as an entrée

My belly gets excited just thinking about this chili! I make many different chilis, and I find each one endearing, but this one is my current favorite. It’s fairly representative of vegetarian chilis in general, but I think it’s the most delicious chili I’ve ever made at home. In fact, I think this chili might be the one I use in a black bean chili cook-off that my friend Josh wants to organize as a friendly challenge. Let the trash-talking begin! I see the cook-off as an excuse to eat slices of cornbread and big steaming bowls of chili. Josh also has a granola recipe that is, I’m told, top-notch, and to that all I can say is this: BRING IT.

Feel free to use your favorite chili beans in this recipe. I’ve used any combination of black beans, small red beans, red kidney beans, or pinto beans with great success. For the black bean chili cook-off, I’ll probably use all black beans, and I might go so far as to use dried beans if time permits. But on weeknights, when I’m making this chili just for me, I use all canned beans and I have no qualms about doing so. Neither should you.

Finally, this chili is mildly spicy—perfect for a mellow Northerner like me. If you want to turn up the heat, you can add more chili powder, red crushed chile peppers, or your favorite hot sauce.

1/2 cup bulgur
1/2 cup hot water
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
3 tbsp. olive oil
3 onions, chopped (about 3 cups of chopped onions)
3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 heaping tsp. ground cumin
1 heaping tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. red crushed chile peppers
2 fresh green bell peppers, chopped, or 2 jarred roasted red peppers, chopped
2 cups vegetable stock
2 cups frozen cut corn
1 14-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained (1 1/2 cups beans)
1 14-oz. can small red beans, rinsed and drained (1 1/2 cups beans)
Salt and pepper to taste

1) In a small saucepan, mix together the bulgur, hot water, and 1 cup of the juice from the canned tomatoes. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer gently on low heat.
2) In a large soup pot or a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions for several minutes until soft and then stir in the garlic, cumin, chili powder, and chile pepper flakes. Sauté for another minute to make the spices fragrant and toasty. Add the bell peppers and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
3) Add the vegetable stock. Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the canned tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and add them to the chili pot. Bring the whole thing to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer. Add the corn and beans.
4) Taste the bulgur for chewiness. If the bulgur is chewy without being hard or tough, then it’s ready to be added to the chili. At that time, add the bulgur to the chili pot and let the chili simmer for a few mintes to let all the flavors blend together.
5) Taste the chili and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper or anything else that sounds good (hot sauce, perhaps?). Serve the chili in deep bowls accompanied by your favorite chili toppings.

* * *

I have a few tiny announcements today. The first is that today is Daphna’s birthday! Or at least I think it is, and I have a long and colorful history of misremembering birthday dates. Either way, I know it’s this month, so happy birthday, D! Your present is waiting ever so patiently for you to open it.

The second announcement is that I found a mistake in my recipe for Crunchy Breakfast Granola! Ah, I’m so embarrassed! The salt amount was listed as 1/2 tsp., but it should be 1/4 tsp. If you saved the recipe, please make sure you add this correction to your copy. I’m so sorry about this. I really hope I didn’t ruin anybody’s morning with salty granola.


ttfn300 said...

i think the same thing about tomato soup!!! much more comforting coming in out of the snow :) not a fan of gazpacho myself.

glad things are looking HAPPY! I'm trying to get back there myself after a rough year. good luck with that search when the time comes... i didn't do a great job, but you owe it to yourself!

SixTailFarm said...

Three cheers for yummy recipes and for the warm mention of Albion :) We'd eat more organic eggs here if only our chickens would stop hiding them.

JD said...

We must chat soon, there are at least three relevant topics in this post I must discuss with you. Suffice it to say that a little life ambition on JD's part might lead me to get a Masters in the exact area you just had a good experience with.... So we must chat. What day would be good to call you?

Laurie said...

If you figure out how to figure out what is in your heart, could you please let the rest of us know? Some of us haven't figured that out yet. :-)

On a less confusing note...I've been adding barley to my chili lately. When I remember, of course, and only about a quarter of a cup. I don't know if it would work in this speedy-fast recipe. I generally only use it if I'm doing chili in the slow-cooker. It adds a "meaty" texture without adding meat.

Laurie said...

PS Glad things are looking up for you. Good luck with your search and all your endeavors

Rosiecat said...

Wow, HELLO! Thank you for all your wonderful comments! What a treat!

ttfn, I crave tomato soup every day! I should starting making a weekly batch to get me through the last dregs of winter. Good luck with your search for happiness. At least your kitchen is a happy place! :-)

Yay for Albion, SixTailFarm! Ah, those chickens of yours sound feisty--it's an Easter egg hunt with them all the time.

JD, would you like to chat next week? Send me an e-mail! It makes me happy that we have so much to discuss!

Laurie, I'm no fountain of wisdom! I just know that I was NOT doing well before I started taking some drastic measures to make things better, such as counseling. It's important to me to be happy, and I think that's a big first step toward figuring out what I really want.

And, oh, barley! That sounds DELICIOUS. I like barley a lot; I should cook with it. Thanks for the reminder! I think barley would definitely work in this recipe, but you'd want to adjust cooking times and possibly the volume of cooking liquid to account for the differences between barley and bulgur. Such a great idea!

daphna said...

You were right about my birthday! And this recipe looks great! So glad that everything came back a-ok!

Rosiecat said...

Hurray for the birthday girl! But D, you don't look at day over 18. It must be all that baking that keeps you looking so young and happy :-)

I bet Ian would like this chili, and seriously, it is fast fast FAST, so it's a great dish that you can make between your marathon study sessions. Keep up the good work, smarty-pants.