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50 Incredible Novels Under 200 Pages

Steve:

What a great list.

Originally posted on Flavorwire:

Springtime can make even the most devoted of readers a little bit antsy. After all, there are flowers to smell, puddles to jump in, fresh love to kindle. You still want to have a novel in your pocket — just maybe one that doesn’t require quite so epic an attention span. Never fear: after the jump, you will find 50 incredible novels under 200 pages (editions vary, of course, so there’s a little leeway) that are suitable for this or any season. For simplicity’s sake, the list makes no distinction between novel and novella, excludes children’s books, and only allows one novel per author. Read on to find a book to divert your springtime attentions, and since there are way more than 50 incredible short novels out there in the world, add any favorites missing here in the comments.

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Fascinating Graphs Trace Words’ Appearances in Songs, 1960-Present

Steve:

Interesting data.

Originally posted on Flavorwire:

These fascinating graphs are the work of one Nickolay Lamm, and are part of a project that he’s calling Money, Love and Sex. The project charts the frequency with which various words appear in the top 100 singles on the Billboard chart over the years, essentially providing a portrait of how the vocabulary of music has evolved since the 1960s.

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Facebook hit with lawsuit over “Like” ads – user says he never “Liked” USA Today

Steve:

I’ve often suspected as much in my own experience. You?

Originally posted on Gigaom:

A Colorado man who claims Facebook(s fb) falsely told his friends that he “Liked” USA Today(s gci) has filed a lawsuit seeking at least $750 for himself and every other user who appeared in ads for products they never endorsed.

In a class action complaint filed in San Jose, Anthony Ditirro says a friend called his attention to a Facebook ad that shows Ditirro “liking” a USA Today food section:

FB like screenshot

According to Ditirro, he never clicked his “Like” button on USA Today’s Facebook page or even visited the publication’s website in the first place.

“Although PLAINTIFF has nothing negative to say about USA TODAY newspapers, PLAINTIFF is not an avid reader of USA TODAY, nor does PLAINTIFF endorse the newspaper,” says the complaint.

The lawsuit states that the phantom Likes violate a series of state and federal laws related to privacy and publicity rights, and cites a California law that…

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Drinking from the Twitter firehose: I love the stream, but I need more filters and bridges

Steve:

Matt Ingram articulates the main shortcoming with Twitter quite well in this piece.

Originally posted on Gigaom:

By now, many of us who live our lives — or at least significant parts of them — online have grown used to the ubiquity of the “stream” metaphor when it comes to consuming content. It probably started with RSS feeds and blogs, but it has become the default for many services, and particularly social ones like Twitter (s twtr) and Facebook (s fb) and Tumblr (s yhoo). Where once there were individual webpages, now there’s often just a stream that scrolls off into infinity, like a highway that disappears into a distant horizon.

That kind of thing is wonderfully liberating, but it can also be distracting and noisy, and I would argue that Twitter is one of the worst culprits. I’m willing to admit that part of the problem is the way that people like me use it (or possibly over-use it), but part of it is also…

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Top Rope Anchor Cluster

Steve:

If you’re a climber, here’s my latest post on Jive-Ass Anchors.

Originally posted on Jive-Ass Anchors:

Wim on Pitch 1 of The Crown Jewel.
Wim on Pitch 1 of The Crown Jewel.

This entry borrows a chapter from the book “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” In early December (2013) we had a very rare and sustained cold snap in the Pacific Northwestern U.S. It was cold enough to freeze some of the many waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge that divides Washington and Oregon, and all of my Portland area climbing pals were going ape shit crazy with all of the ice climbing opportunities. I managed to get out on two days myself, and even had the rare opportunity to climb the Crown Jewel below Crown Point on the Oregon side of the river. It’s two pitches of WI3. That’s my buddy Wim leading pitch 1 in the photo above. Not the gnarliest thing in the world, mind you, but you have to appreciate how rare it is for it to ever be ‘in’. Moreover…

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Is SEO Dead or Alive? Introduction

SEO is Dead Search History. Screen capture by Steve Heikkila
‘SEO is Dead’ Search History. Screen capture by Steve Heikkila

The Report of SEO’s Death

“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Mark Twain once humorously quipped. He was responding to a minor media debacle whereby The Herald newspaper mistook news of a cousin’s grave illness for news that Twain himself was a death’s door. I think of this quote every time I read an obituary for Search Engine Optimization. While the reasons offered in support of the claim that SEO is dead often sound fairly compelling, the skeptic in me always insists upon withholding judgment. After all, the news of SEO’s death has been reported repeatedly at least since 1997, but somehow the old boy always seems to pull through and keep kicking. Given the perennial nature of this death knell you can hardly blame a fellow for being a bit wary.

“Okay sure, maybe it was just hype in the past,” SEO’s most recent undertakers will argue, “but this time it’s for real! Because, you know, Panda! And Penguin! And Humming Bird!” And the more adamant of SEO’s defenders will retort, “Don’t be so naïve! SEO is alive and well, and it will continue to be as long as search engines continue to exist.” The practical truth of the matter surely lies somewhere between these highly invested and polarized viewpoints, and is certainly less melodramatic.

Cutting through the Bull

Let’s cut right to the obvious but oh so sensitive chase. Both those in the ‘SEO is dead’ camp and in the ‘SEO is alive and well’ camp are correct in their own way. The reason this is the case is because the whole controversy is largely semantic. SEO is dead or alive depending upon what you mean by SEO. Define your terms appropriately and you can make a case either way. This is important to note, because in most cases the people who insist upon discussing the future of SEO in stark, all-or-nothing, ‘dead or alive’ terms have a dog in the fight. They’re not interested in a nuanced and even handed treatment of the subject matter. They address the issue in stark ‘dead or alive’ terms on purpose. I’m thinking especially of the ‘SEO is dead’ camp here, because they’re the ones who are driving the debate. In this camp are social media marketers, content marketers, bloggers, SEM and PPC practitioners, social platform providers, inbound marketing solution providers, and anyone who proposes to represent the ‘answer’ to SEO’s demise. They’re business people, and they’re competing for wallet share.

Those in the SEO defender camp are largely those who make their living off of SEO. They’re defending their livelihood.

The important take away here is that by framing the discussion about the fate of SEO in stark, ‘dead or alive’ terms, the debate itself has been rendered utterly facile. It glosses over the more practical and fundamental question that we all really want answered, which is simply this: given the present configuration of the digital universe, what is the best way to drive or attract traffic to a website?  

We might argue as to whether I’ve articulated this more nuanced question too broadly or too narrowly, but I hope you’ll agree that I’ve at least captured the general idea correctly. The answer to this question is what’s really at stake. There was a time when, and a place where SEO was the answer to this question. It remains to be seen what the correct answer is at present (January 2014).

In future segments of this article I’ll explore the pros and cons of the various pretenders to the throne, including a rather powerful critique offered by the SEO camp. In the meantime, I’ve included list of links I found related to the facile debate regarding the reputed Death of SEO.

SEO is Dead Links

http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenkrogue/2012/07/20/the-death-of-seo-the-rise-of-social-pr-and-real-content/

http://www.marketingtechblog.com/seo-is-dead/

http://www.inboundnow.com/seo-is-dead-the-evolution-of-inbound-marketing-and-how-to-adapt/

http://www.inc.com/neal-cabage/seo-is-dead-now-what.html

http://techli.com/2013/12/the-truth-about-internet-marketing-part-2-seo-is-a-scam/

SEO is Still Alive Links

http://searchengineland.com/is-seo-dead-1997-prediction-meet-2009-reality-32113

http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshsteimle/2013/07/15/seo-is-not-dead-and-will-never-die-infographic/

http://www.seobook.com/learn-seo/infographics/death-of-seo.php

SEO is Still Alive, and Marissa Mayer is Still VP of Search at Google

http://www.seoisnotdead.com/

SEO Didn’t Die, It Was Simply Reincarnated

http://socialmediatoday.com/node/2030161?utm_source=smt_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&inf_contact_key=ee97ec15b213257f74bee35f7f2e37ba840c2ae065f511da1827fcf343fa1376

Santa Claus Fact Sheet

For those of you who are interested in creating content marketing material with visual impact, it’s hard to beat the incredibly effective and popular infographic. I’ve discovered that you can make fairly decent infographics using Microsoft PowerPoint. Yes, that’s right. PowerPoint.

Start by sizing your slide as “Custom” under the Page Set Up menu to create the infographic palate size you want (in this case, I went with 30 inches x 90 inches).

Slide layout settings menu
Slide layout settings menu

From there it’s simply a matter of making use of PowerPoint’s text, shape, and image tools. To create icons, combine various shapes from the shapes menu, position, color fill, and size the pieces appropriately until you have your recongizable icon, and then highlight each component (Shift+Right Click) and conjoin them as a group (there is a group option in the menu). You can then move, resize, and manipulate your icon as a single piece.

When you complete your infographic, save it as a .PNG file and share away.

I’m not much of a graphic designer, but if you are, you can produce some pretty decent results. It’s not as slick as Adobe PhotoShop or Illustrator, mind you, but it’s much more impressive than I expected, and it uses software that most business people have on their laptop already. My first shot at this is below. Happy Holidays to you, and happy content marketing.

Santa Claus Fact Sheet Infographic
Santa Claus Fact Sheet

Texas Chili Recipes

Over a three week period I made three batches of chili, starting on what seemed to be on the right path based on researching online, and then tweaking a bit. If you’re looking for inspiration to cook, be sure to scroll down to recipe #3. It’s the best one. This whole odyssey began with my Texas Chili Project post a few weeks ago, so if you’re interested in the history and culture of Texas chili, start there.

Texas Chili Recipe #1

Texas Chili Recipe #1: the First Attempt.
Texas Chili Recipe #1: the First Attempt.

Ingredients

The Beef

3 pounds of sirloin steak, cut into small cubes (about ¼ to ⅓ of an inch cube)

The Chilies

3 oz package of dried New Mexico chilies, seeded and stemmed

2 oz. package of dried Ancho chilies, seeded and stemmed.

1 oz package of ground Pasilla Molido chili powder

1 T Ground Cayanne Pepper

The Remaining Ingredients

2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced medium fine

1 12 oz can of Campbell’s beef consomme

1 ½ t Kosher Salt

¼ t Ground Black Pepper

1 T Onion Powder

1 T Garlic Powder

1 T Ground Cumin

1 T Ground Coriander Seed

1 t Ground Cinnamon

½ C Apple Cider Vinegar

Method

Boil the whole dried chilies in 1 quart of water for about 5 minutes to soften. Puree in a blender until very smooth (this is key, I discovered, or you get bits of unpalatable pepper skin in your chili).

Saute onion in the olive oil and a pinch of salt until translucent. Add the beef, black pepper, and the remaining salt. Cook until mostly browned. Add the onion and garlic powder, stir. Then add the chili puree, the ground chili powders. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 hour covered. Add water if it gets too thick.

After an hour, add the remaining powdered ingredients (I don’t know if it really matters, but I read a recipe in which cumin and coriander are added later because they can burn in the stew). Cook for about another hour. Keep adding water so you end up with a nice chili consistency–not too soupy but not too thick.

Notes

  1. This was an admirable first attempt, I think. Nice amount of heat (although I could go quite a bit hotter), and super flavorful. I gobbled it up in pretty short order.
  2. Apparently you can overcook chili until the meat gets mushy. My two hours seemed to work well. The sirloin was very tender but not mushy.

  3. Without the cayanne the chili isn’t very hot (it’s fairly sweet). I found that 1 T of cayanne gave it a nice heat without being really hot (for my taste–it would be too hot for some). I might even add a bit more next time if it was just for me, but this amount is probably good for ‘company’.

  4. Most recipes do not include the cider vinegar,but I found the chili was a bit bland and muddy tasting without it. It really needed some acid. Adding the vinegar was key in my view.

  5. I didn’t puree the chiles well enough, so I had some bits of New Mexico chili skin in the chili, which wasn’t a good texture. Need to be sure to puree those well.

For Next Time:

  1. A bit of ground clove?

  2. Try a Tri-Tip roast for the beef?

  3. Some recipes have a bit of brown sugar to sweeten the chili. This could be good.

  4. I’ve seen some deglazing with tequila (mabye a few ounces).

  5. Some Texas chili recipes have hasa flour in it.

  6. Some versions have tomato sauce and beef and chicken “granules” (buillion, I assume).

  7. Most “award winning” chili recipes have Goya Sazon in it (it’s a mix of MSG, Annato, gatlic, cumin, salt, and artificial coloring)..

  8. Bit of coffee?

  9. Toast the dried chilies before rehydrating them.

Texas Chili Recipe #2: Leaning in the ‘Contest Chili’ Direction.

I read a lot of award winning chili competition chili recipes and decided to make a batch that stirs in that direction. I decided to try the MSG (Goya Sazon) and some chicken bouillon (lots of contest chilis have it). Also, last time I didn’t puree my chilis enough and ended up with unpleasant bits of New Mexico chili skin in the final product. So I was careful to puree the chilis well. Most competition chilies seem to use powdered chili and chili mixes exclusively, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go a fully processed route. See my post about my Texas Chili Project for more on this.

The recipe is essentially the same as recipe #1 with the following differences:

  1. I replaced the 1 oz package of ground Pasilla Molido chili powder with a 1 oz package of ground Hot New Mexico chili powder.
  2. I added 1 Knorr chicken bouillon cube (all the cool kids are doing it).

  3. I added 1 packet of Sazón Goya con Culantro y Achiote (a fairly ubiquitous ingredient in competition chili).

  4. I added 1/4 cup of brown sugar.

Notes

  1. Not nearly as good as the first batch in my opinion. It had an odd, I don’t know, chemical like flavor. I think it must have been the Sazón Goya.
  2. It was a bit too sweet for my taste. I think the brown sugar addition was fine, but I’d back off on the amount next time. Maybe just a big tablespoonful. 
  3. I decided to go the other direction for the next batch (rustic homestyle rather than competition powdered concoction).

Texas Chili Recipe #3: The Best of the Bunch.

Texas Chili Recipe #3 is a winner.
Texas Chili Recipe #3 is a winner.

This final recipe was the best. I’m pretty satisfied to use it as a master recipe. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the Homesick Texan, who argues it’s perfectly acceptable to experiment a bit with chili, and that you needn’t be so anal retentive about it. You can mix it up every time, using different chilis, and varying the spices. He also puts coffee in his chili, which I’ll likely try next, and Mexican chocholate (which is a no-no to some because it reads like Mexican mole). I think what I like best about his approach is simply that it embraces my own instincts about a dish like chili. He’s got what looks like an awesome recipe here.

I ground my own spices where possible, but one noteworthy point is that I forgot to toast my chilies before soaking them. I’ll do that next time. I also tried a chuck roast rather than sirloin this time. The chuck is fattier, so it’s probably not as texturally uniform for competition chili, but I like it better. Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

The Beef

3 pounds of chuck roast, cut into small cubes (about ¼ to ⅓ of an inch cube)

The Chilies

3 oz package of dried New Mexico chilies, seeded and stemmed

2 oz. package of dried Ancho chilies, seeded and stemmed.

2 oz package of Chil Negro Entero (chil pods), seeded and stemmed.

1 T Ground Cayanne Pepper

The Remaining Ingredients

2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced medium fine

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 12 oz can of Campbell’s beef consomme

First Dump (with the chilis)

1 ½ t Kosher Salt

¼ t Ground Black Pepper

1 T Onion Powder

1 T Garlic Powder

Second Dump (after one hour)

1 T Ground Cumin

1 T Ground Coriander Seed

1 t Ground Cinnamon

1 t Ground Allspice

½ C Apple Cider Vinegar

1 T Brown Sugar

Method

Boil the whole dried chilies in 1 quart of water for about 5 minutes to soften. Puree in a blender until very smooth (this is key or you get bits of unpalatable pepper skin in your chili).

Saute onion in the olive oil and a pinch of salt until translucent. Add minced garlic for a few minutes. Add the beef, black pepper, and the remaining salt. Cook until mostly browned. Add the onion and garlic powder, stir. Then add the chili puree. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 hour covered. Add water if it gets too thick.

After an hour, add the remaining powdered ingredients and the sugar and cider vinegar.. Cook for about another hour, or until the meat is very tender. Keep adding water so you end up with a nice chili consistency–not too soupy but not too thick.

Notes

  1. I don’t care for the sweet gravy, but a bit of sugar takes out a slight bitter edge I detect. A tablespoon was just about right.

  2. I cut the chuck roast into slightly larger cubes because of the grain of that cut (tiny cubes don’t come out so well). The chuck has a bit more fat than the sirloin, which I think is a no-no for chili competitions, but I don’t care. The original Chili Queens recipe has ¼ C of Suet and ¼ of Lard.

  3. Added raw garlic due to preference for scratch cooking. I contemplated leaving out the onion and garlic powders as a result, but decided against it last minute. They’ve got a different flavor than the raw stuff.

  4. This shit is da bomb.

Texas Chili Project

Texas style chili is the stuff of legend. Some people refer to it as chili con carne, but in Texas it’s just called ‘chili’. The ‘con carne’ part is a given, and there is no need for the “Texas style” qualifier because Texans proudly refuse to entertain the idea that there are other styles.

An entire culture and ethos exists around chili that is in many ways similar to barbecue culture. There are rules, methods, arguments about what makes it great, and closely guarded recipe secrets. Chili masters compete fiercely in chili contests for #1 bragging rights in much the same way that barbecue pit masters compete in barbecue competitions. 

Bowl of Red
Bowl of Red: This is the Stuff

Conceptually it’s a pretty simple dish: a kind of thick stew-like concoction made from dried chili peppers (ground into a powder, or reconstituted in hot water and pureed) and beef, slow simmered until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. That’s the essence of it. Surely it also has a few other herbs and spices (amounts and types varying recipe to recipe), and probably some onion and garlic, maybe an acid (vinegar) or a sweetener (brown sugar), and perhaps (although not necessarily) even a bit of tomato product and/or a pinch of masa as a thickening agent. That’s pretty much it. Of course it’s the infinite variability of these ingredients that complicates the game.

Notice that beans are conspicuously missing from the list. This is actually kind a of big deal, which brings to mind a favorite Texas pastime: when they aren’t remembering the Alamo, or talking about how much bigger stuff is where they live, Texans absolutely love to act horrified by the suggestion that it’s somehow acceptable to put beans in chili. Now I have to confess that I’ve sampled a lot of chili with beans in it throughout the country in my day. Heck, I even made vegetarian three bean chili for a vegetarian girlfriend once and thought that it was quite good (allspice and apple cider vinegar put it over the top). But that shit don’t fly in Texas. In Texas there are rules to making chili, and while you can get away with taking some license with ingredients here and there, there simply are no damn beans in chili! End of discussion. It’s a specific rule unto itself at most chili cook offs–just to be crystal clear about the matter. And while we’re at it, you don’t eat chili over spaghetti with cheddar cheese and raw onions like those damn Yankees up in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Style Chili, or to Texans "Some kinda Yankee spaghetti dish."
Cincinnati Style Chili, or to Texans, “I don’t care what you call  that Yankee spaghetti mess, it ain’t chili.”

This chili ethos is well reflected in a 1976 song “If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans,” written by Ken Finley and adopted as the official anthem of the International Chili Society:

You burn some mesquite / And when the coals get hot
You bunk up some meat / And you throw it on a pot
With some chile pods and garlic / And comino and stuff.
Then you add a little salt / Till there’s just enough
You can throw in some onions / To make it smell good.
You can even add tomatoes / If you feel like you should
But if you know beans about chili / You know that chili has no beans.

Chorus:
If you know beans about chili / You know it didn’t come from Mexico
Chili was God’s gift to Texas / (Or maybe it came from down below)
And chili doesn’t go with macaroni / And damned Yankees don’t go with chili queens;
And if you know beans about chili / You know that chili has no beans.

At any rate, I’ve sampled chili here and there over the years and found the quality to vary from disgusting (that runny, greasy ground beef and chili powder flavored glop they slather on ‘chili dogs’ is technically chili con carne), to mediocre (bad Tex-Mex restaurants), to absolutely sublime (made by proud chili snobs). Recently I decided I probably ought to figure out how to make it. And thus the Texas Chili Project was born.

Caveat Emptor: I’m Not from Texas

Louisiana has its gumbo, Maine has its lobster rolls, and Florida has its key lime pie. But in Texas chili is the official state dish! It’s a big deal, and like its brethren, barbecued brisket, it’s definitely a point of state pride. Consequently, Texas chili is one of those specialized regional dishes that one is lead to believe that only a native can cook properly. I am not from Texas, nor have I ever lived in Texas, and I fully understand that to Texans this admission immediately makes me suspect. However, I don’t think that this means that I can’t make a batch of kick-ass “Texas rules” chili. Making great food isn’t a matter of being born in a certain place. It’s a matter of being a good cook. So if my chili is off in some way, it’s likely because there is some subtle indigenous rule I’ve unwittingly broken. And if I have, people from Texas, I welcome you to enlighten me as to the error of my ways. I’m here to learn.

The History of Chili

Yeah, that’s right. The history of chili. Let no one say I’m not serious about my cooking.

Cooking with chilies, meat, and herbs was certainly not unknown to Inca, Aztec, and Mayan culture. However, from what I’ve been able to discover, the dish we know as chili con carne originates with the “chili queens”  who served it food cart style to working men in San Antonio’s Military Plaza as early as the 1860s. If you want to go back to roots, here is an original chili queens chili recipe (containing both pork and beef, and heavy on the suet) from back in the day, courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures. Eventually chili caught on as a popular cattle trail food, and cowboys spread the chili gospel until ‘chili joints’ serving up a “bowl of red” popped up all over the American Southwest.

San Antonio Chili Queen Street Vendor (Photo from The Whitte Museum)
A San Antonio Chili Queen serves her customers in the 1920s (Photo from The Whitte Museum)

It’s also a big deal to Texans to insist that chili is not Mexican in origin. It’s bad enough that Santa Anna’s troops killed Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie at the Battle of the Alamo. Texas won’t allow Mexico to claim chili, and as it turns out, Mexico doesn’t want to make that claim. This is, in fact, how Texans who have a dog in this fight make their case that chili isn’t Mexican. They point to various Mexicans, like this guy, who proudly disown this dish as a “northern concoction” that they’d rather not be associated with. Now as far as arguments go, that’s pretty weak. In the end it really doesn’t matter as it’s largely a facile debate about modern nation states and patriotism. You’ve got some native people (Payaya Indians) living in Yanaguana, right? Then in 1691 some Spaniards show up and, being hardcore Roman Catholic colonial imperialists, they set up a mission and rename the place after St. Anthony of Padua. Suddenly Yanaguana is San Antonio, a town in Nueva España. But wait, by 1821 it’s a town in Mexico (¡Viva México!). Wait, by 1836 it’s a town in the Republic of Texas (Remember the Alamo!). Wait, in 1845 the Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States of America (Bob Wills is still the king!). All of these outside influences have an impact on regional cuisine, and chili is from San Antonio. The end. But I digress…

At the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago (i.e., The World’s Fair), Texas operated a San Antonio Chili Stand, which helped introduce chili to other parts of the United States. Soon people were putting it on Hot Dogs, hamburgers, french fries, omelettes, and spaghetti, substituting tomatoes for the chilies, and yes, some times even adding beans and elbow macaroni (chili mac).  And there you have it. Chili took on all of the weird regional variations we know today, most of which is dog food, and most of which causes Texans to cringe in horror. 

1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced Chili to the World.
1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced Chili to the World.

But enough about history and macaroni. Let’s get to the chili recipes.

Some Observations About Chili Recipes

In my quest to develop a decent, authentic chili recipe I’ve noticed a few things about chili recipes–things that are…disappointing. This is the section where I probably stick my foot in my mouth and get in trouble with certain Texan chili aficionados.

Hamburger? Really?

I was curious to find out what cut of beef was popular in chili. I really didn’t know. It could have been brisket for all I knew (some folks do use brisket). Most recipes I see, however, are made with sirloin or chuck roast or tri-tip roast, or a roast I’ve never even heard of called a ‘blade’ roast. But here is where it get’s strange (to me).

While some chili recipes council cutting the meat into small cubes (the size varying according to the preferences and logic of the author), I’ve noticed that a lot of chili recipes begin with ground beef. Granted, they stipulate “chili grind“, which differentiates itself from hamburger by being a courser grind. Maybe this is a Texas chili faux pas, but this just seems wrong to me. I don’t care if it’s ‘chili grind’, you’re making hamburger soup. It makes me think of that greasy chili people put on chili dogs. I’d rather have a chili with a slightly more stew-like texture. Granted, it’s more labor intensive to dice three pounds of beef with a knife, but I’m betting it’s worth it. I wonder if simple laziness is the primary reason for grinding it instead. At any rate, I don’t want this for my chili. I’ll dice my beef by hand, thank you.

Packaged Processed Ingredients?

I’ve noticed that some award winning chili recipes are made from various packets of purchased and prepared chili powders and spices mixed into a pile of hamburger. I’m thinking here primarily of CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) competition chilies.  The recipe ingredients lists look something like this:

2 tsp Mild Bills Onion Granules

¼ tsp Mild Bills Cayenne Pepper

2 tsp Wylers Beef Granules

1/8 tsp Mild Bills Cayenne Pepper

1 Tbsp Mild Bills San Antonio Original Chili Powder

1 Tbsp Mild Bills Cowtown Light Chili Powder

With all due respect for the good folks at Mild Bill’s, who probably make top notch product (it certainly wins a lot of chili contests), I just don’t think dumping a mixture of powders from store bought packages into a pot is cooking. Where’s the mortar and pestle? Where’s the knife and cutting board? Where are the dried chilies? I can appreciate that this is largely a complex chemistry experiment, and getting the blend and amount of packet ingredients takes a lot of patient and meticulous trial and error. But just like the ‘chili grind’ hamburger, this just seems wrong. It seems more akin to preparing a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, except instead of adding the packet of cheese sauce you add many packets of subtly different cheese sauces.

I wouldn’t think of making Thai food with a purchased jar of prepared curry paste–not for company anyway. I’d make that curry paste from scratch. I also concoct from scratch the various masalas when I cook Indian food. And if quality gumbo requires stirring flour and fat constantly for an hour until you have a chocolaty brown roux, then that’s what I do. I’m a “from scratch” kind of guy, because I think the artistry, care, and attention to detail are reflected in the quality of the end product. You can taste the love. Cooking from scratch is what distinguishes cooking as an art form from “throwing something together for dinner”. With all due respect to Sandra Lee’s Famous Kwanzaa Cake, any monkey can pour a jar of processed glop into a pan or open a packet of seasoning mix.

This being the case, while I’m not opposed to using some ground spices, I’d prefer to roast and grind my own spices when I can. And instead of chili powders, I prefer to buy whole dried chili pods, stem and seed them, re-hydrate them, and grind them into a paste. This is cooking, right?

Goya Sazón

I’ve noticed a lot of chili recipes have Goya Sazón in them, which is a seasoning bouillon cube that reputedly imparts a “Latin American” quality to foods. It consists mainly of MSG, and also has Coriander, Annatto, garlic, salt, and tricalcium phosphate. Is this somehow essential? It pops up in recipe after recipe. While some people claim to be sensitive to monosodium glutimate, I have no serious qualms about it. It imparts an umami flavor, and umami is good.

The Matter of “Dumps”

I’ve also noticed that the timing of adding certain ingredients appears to be significant, at least to the competition chili cook. All of those spice mixes and chili powders are divided into “dumps”, which are added at various stages of the cooking. I read one explanation stating that things like coriander or cinnamon can burn, so you want to add them later. That makes a certain amount of sense I guess, so I’ll keep this in mind. But some of these dump divisions seemed like alchemy to me, like something a Shakespearean witch would find important when adding eye of newt and Wolf’s Bane to a cauldron of witch’s brew. For my initial batches I’ve decided not to dwell on ‘dumps’ too much.

The Recipes

In the end, maybe ‘competition chili’ recipes with their packaged powders just don’t fit my scratch cooking ethos. So the chili I make will be a more rustic style. I’ve experimented with two batches of chili thus far, and to my taste I’m thinking I need to go even more “from scratch’. I’m even considering making that original chili queens chili recipe from the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Click here for the recipes.

Steven Heikkila,  November 2013

Stay Thirsty My Friends

I was The Most Interesting Man in the World for a Halloween party this year. The downsides were having to buy (and eventually drink) an entire sixpack of Dos Equis beer, and having to carry around a disgusting grape flavored “cigarillo” all night. Not to fear on the XX though. After finishing the first prop beer at the party, I simply refilled the bottle with Hub IPA from the keg.

I don't always drink beer out of a Dos Equis bottle, but when I do, I prefer to fill it with IPA.
I don’t always drink beer out of a Dos Equis bottle, but when I do, I prefer to fill it with IPA.

Digital Marketing Professional, Creative Thinker, Alpine Adventurer, Vanquisher of Chaos

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