Great Bowls of Fire
If it doesn't bring tears to your eyes, it's not chili
It was Dale who got me hooked in 1982, in Tucson, Ariz. Dale, who wore cowboy boots and counterfeit mirrored Ray-Bans. Dale, who was always going off to meet people with names like "Slade" and "El Gourdo." That Dale.
Dale was not unsophisticated, but he was a man of powerful appetites. Where food was concerned, his sense of taste had been toughened up by filterless Ducado cigarettes from south of the border and tequila that went down the throat like a swarm of hornets. His palate was like a remote swath of desert that had been hardened by nuclear testing. It took strong flavors to make an impression on him.
For me, it started with the jalapenos. We were sitting in a dusty bar in Nogales on the Mexican border when Dale signaled to the waiter, who quickly sent a small dish skidding across the table. On it a triad of miniature emerald torpedos glinted ominously in the harsh Southwestern light. Being from corn bread country, I'd never tried a jalapeno before. But like a kid brother wanting to impress the older guys, I bit squarely into one. It set my mouth aflame, as if my tongue had been stung by a scorpion. Dale flashed a wicked grin that reminded me of a figure in an Hieronymus Bosch painting; all he lacked was a pitchfork. Then we broke into a fit of maniacal laughter, with tears streaming down our faces. Today this would be called male bonding, but we didn't think of it like that back then. Dale was not the kind of guy who engaged in group hugs.
I was hooked. The sensation of all that capsicum hitting the nerve endings in my mouth and activating the central fire alarm in the cerebral cortex was a dangerously exhilarating rush that I had never before experienced. But that was only the beginning.
The next afternoon, Dale went to work in the kitchen. He was making chili, but instead of using the ground beef that embodied all I knew of chili con carne, he began slicing up a slab of lean beef that was soon flung into the bottom of a pot to brown in hot butter. Pinto beans simmered in a kettle on the stove, thick-sliced bacon sizzled in a skillet, and a variety of exotic dried chiles--I would later come to recognize them as pasilla, ancho and cascabel--soaked in a bowl of water. Dale cryptically mentioned that the recipe had been given to him by El Somebody amid a vaguely sinister transaction, but his conspiratorial gaze warned me off from inquiring further.
That night we sat down to incendiary bowls of the most incredible food I'd had in my life. I don't think Dale had a name for it, but I ended up calling it Dale's Damn Hot Chili, which these days kind of rings nicely against all those yuppie hot sauces they have now with overstated names like Hellfire Inferno. This was great stuff. There were multiple dimensions of flavor: garlic, onion, even the subtle flavor-enhancing power of coffee and the nutty aftertaste of the dried chile puree, all mingling with the bacon, beans and beef. But there was more than that: There was heat so fierce that you transcended your worldly cares and fell into a blissful state of self-forgetfulness.
As somebody once said, abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones, and I was soon on my way to a life of culinary crime. Over the years, I became immune to the suffering of others, unable to control my urges to amp up vegetable soup with just a "pinch" of cayenne. On so many nights I sheepishly lowered my eyes to the plate of Santa Fe pepper-spiked ratatouille or pork chops doused in an improvised chipotle sauce as one or another in a line of rapidly defecting girlfriends would wail abjectly at yet another betrayal of my promise to keep things cool. How could you? You know I can't stand spices! It was inconceivable to me that not everyone had my tolerance for the burn. One night several years ago, Dale's Damn Hot Chili nearly sent a Canadian, two Brits, and an Austrian to the emergency ward. Little did they know.
To all I've injured, please believe me: I'm truly sorry. I am a chili head, and I can't help it. Until my recent reformation, my friend Barak Zimmerman was the only person who dared eat my cooking. We had formed sort of a two-man gastronomic Fight Club, the object being to prepare dishes hot enough to knock each other out of our respective senses. But nothing topped Dale's recipe.
Needless to say, large supplies of cold beer are necessary, and don't give me that nonsense about bread or milk being more effective to put out the flame. Just you remember, all you young whippersnappers with your first shot of habanero marinade still dripping from behind your ears: all this started before you were lining your shelves with
hyperbolically-titled bottles of designer hot sauce that became paperweights once the first squirt sent you crying to Mommy. Me and Dale, we were into capsicum when capsicum wasn't cool.
Los Angeles Times
A Time to Bake
If He Was Going to Woo Ashley Judd, This Kentuckian Needed to Perfect His Biscuits
By Martin Booe
My mother is put out with me because I won't date Ashley Judd. "I'm telling you, she's not going to marry that Scottish fellow," Mother fusses. I've never actually met Ashley Judd, but we're both from Kentucky, and broadly speaking, we're both in Hollywood. Now doesn't that sound like a match? This all started as a joke, but the more Mom repeated it, the more she liked the idea. Now, as far as she's concerned, Ashley and I'd be kicking back on her farm making biscuits by now if only I weren't so darn contrary.
Actually, biscuit-making is the one thing I do know Ashley and I have in common. I know this because Esquire profiled her recently and she made biscuits for the writer. His description of her making biscuits was so rapturous you'd think she was doing the dance of the seven veils. But the profile made me realize two things: I hadn't had a good biscuit in a long time, and in case I ever did get together with Ashley, I'd better work on my technique. At making biscuits, anyway.
For the most part, having biscuits in Los Angeles is like having burritos in Marrakech. They just don't come out right. Here, they're too big and too tall, too puffed up with baking powder, with too much middle and not enough crust, and frequently ruined by the addition of sugar. If you have never had a proper "raised" or "baking powder" biscuit, I am sad for you. And I think I can speak for Ashley when I say that she is too.
A good biscuit is a compact thing, about an inch and a half high and three inches in diameter, as opposed to the doughy, steroidal four-inch-high monstrosities you find in local restaurants that are likely to make people call out, "Got milk?" Biscuits should be about 30% crust. They should be crisp and flaky on the outside and moist within, and they're best served straight out of the oven so that you have to juggle them to keep from burning your hand until you can slit them with a knife and slap in some butter. They're easy to make, but as I discovered, it takes practice. They're also about the fastest homemade bread you could ask for. Once you've got your chops down, you can whip up the dough in a matter of 10 minutes before slapping the biscuits in the oven for another 15 or 20. Flour, baking powder, salt, shortening and milk: those are the simple ingredients. For shortening, you can use butter or lard, but a lot of folks in biscuit country still swear by Crisco, bless their hearts.
My first couple of batches fell flat. Too dense, too hard, too flat. I began to despair. But one night, after another failed attempt, who do you think came to me in a dream but Miss Ashley Judd herself! She guided me into the kitchen and showed me where I was going wrong. "Lard's better than butter," she said. "It makes them lighter. And you're needling the flour too much! It makes them tough. More milk! You want the dough as wet as you can get it without it falling apart!" And lo, out came the most perfect, beautiful biscuits.
The next day, I told my mother I'd finally been on a date with Ashley Judd. "Honey," she said, "you've been living in California too long."
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/3 cup shortening (butter, lard or Crisco)
3/4 cup milk
In a mixing bowl, sift dry ingredients. Using your fingers, cut in shortening until mixture has texture of coarse meal. Add milk and stir with a fork until just mixed. Gather dough into a ball and place on a floured surface. Sprinkle with flour to avoid sticking. Roll with a rolling pin to 3/4-inch thickness. Cut with a biscuit cutter into 3-inch rounds, knead scraps together and cut again. Place biscuits on a baking sheet. If desired, brush tops with butter. Bake on the middle shelf of hot oven at 450 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
TENDER IS THE RICE
With Sour Cherries and a Little Cussing, the Humble Grain Becomes an Adventure in Eating
By Martin Booe