I have three gentleman friends, all three more dear to me that I can express, all three at different levels of cooking skills. The first, Skip, doesn't cook, not because he doesn't want to but because he hasn't learned how...yet. He and I have been talking about cooking together so he can pick up some skills. The second, Tom, is starting to experiment with various things, cooking for himself for the first time in many years. The third, Jason, is a more accomplished cook. He is famous (in our group and at his job) for his chili, a challenge to even the hardiest taste buds and stomachs.
My friend, Tom, is a recently single again after many years of marriage and has taken on the task of cooking for himself with a goal of eating out less so at least a few meals prepared at home a week. The first Christmas he was living alone I gave him a gift of two cookbooks. One was a joke, A Man, A Can And A Microwave, the second book in a series by David Joachim. The other was a crock pot cookbook and, after hanging around the kitchen with him for the past couple of years, I can say that that was a good investment. He is an engineer during the day. His initial approach to the crock pot and it's recipes was fairly precise and analytical. Now, this isn't a bad thing. Actually, I was very impressed with his beginning. He jumped in, putting the skills he had to work to help build the skills he had yet to acquire. He followed the recipes the first few times to the letter, or as close as his pantry allowed. As time went on and he started to see how things went together and started branching out on his own adding ingredients that weren't listed in the recipes. He started making them his. He's done stroganoff, a cheddar and salmon souffle and an excellent tortilla soup all in his crock. A little while later, he worked on breakfast and not in a crock pot. I found a good cast iron skillet for him. He added bacon and eggs Alfredo to his repertoire. It is pure joy to watch him at it in the kitchen and even more of a joy to eat someone else's cooking from time to time.
A few weeks ago Skip and I started on his road to the kitchen with a simple chili, nothing fancy, a first shot out. We used canned tomatoes and beans, ground beef and the usual spices that make chili tasty. I didn't want to scare him off with soaking beans overnight, chopping tomatoes or grilling and cubing steak. Thought that might be a bit much for his first foray away from the microwave. It turned out just right for the occasion and he seemed to enjoy working on it. I am looking forward to our future cooking dates. I think one of the most valuable lessons learned in the kitchen is what you learn about yourself when you share your knowledge and skills with someone else. I have the teacher bug in me, but it still takes some thought to be able to communicate why you do what you do to another person. You want to appeal to their way of thinking and approaching the kitchen, not force your ways on them. It's challenging but, obviously, also very rewarding for both of us.
At about the same time, Jason fixed up a pot of Toxtica II, Return of the Double Burn, as an exhibition entry for the chili competition they hold annually at his office. He doesn't actually enter that chili for fear of doing physical harm to the judges. He brought me a container of it. WOW! Was that something to behold. I reheated the whole container (about a cup full) because I'm ambitious, adventurous and, sometimes, fairly foolish. Of course, knowing Jason's background, hearing from others the dramatic effects of his exhibition chilies, I added sour cream and cheddar before diving in. I took the first bite. Ah, pleasure of it! It started off with a sublime chili flavor, beefy and smooth. MMmmm...tasty...wait...what's that? A light sweat broke out on my upper lip and my eyes started to tear. I started to warm the way you do when your lover gently kisses that tender place on the side of your neck, from my core radiating outward. The slow build of heat overtook my senses and rendered me speechless. It was the kind of heat that reaches into you and burns your very soul. A full ten minutes later I took my second bite and went through the whole process again. After about 8 more tiny bites over the course of an hour I was spent, finished, sated for the evening. I put the rest in the freezer for another day. Maybe this weekend when we have a snow storm, with all it's ice and cold, I'll want that kind of fire again.
I guess what I'm getting at is that how experienced you are in the kitchen doesn't so much matter. Whatever your skills you can bring something to the party. What you prepare in the kitchen with your heart and your desire, either to learn or to nourish or to downright seduce, will have an effect on those you feed. Whether it be intellectual, emotional, physical or playful, someone will feel something new and different at your table because of your creation.
Gaming brought us together, my friends and I, but it's things like this that build our friendships. It's moments in our kitchens, good times spent at gatherings or evenings sitting around watching movies or talking about books or battles, the times we open ourselves to each other honestly, that keeps up coming back for more. These men are three of the people that I want to spend the rest of my life with, laughing, loving and sharing the feast.
Just for the fun of it, here's one of my chili recipes. This one is my favorite. It takes a while to prepare, so plan for a day in the kitchen, but it's so worth it:
2lb sirloin steak about 1 inch thick
1 cup dry black beans
4-5 large ruby red ripe tomatoes
3 plum tomatoes
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 jalapeno peppers
2 pablano peppers
2 ancho chili peppers
1 habanero pepper (yes, Jason, only 1)
2 tsp cumin seeds
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tsp Hungarian paprika
1 tbsp salt
1 cup beef broth
In the morning, rinse the beans then toss them in a small sauce pan with enough water to cover twice. Simmer covered, stirring occasionally and gently so as not to break the beans, until they are tender. I usually just taste one now and then after about the first hour to see how they are doing. When the beans are tender, drain most of the remaining water off and set them aside.
Grill the sirloin. Yes, grill it. A little salt and pepper, maybe a dash of worcestershire sauce if you wish. Grill it about 4 minutes a side, just enough to char a bit on the outside, give it the smokey flavor and about medium rare on the inside. Let it cool for about 10 minutes then cube it. Set it aside in a plate or bowl so you don't loose the juices.
On the same grill, even at the same time, cook the chili peppers. You may need a grilling basket for the smaller ones. Whatever works for you. Grill them for about the same amount of time as the steak, until they are mostly charred on the outside. Transfer them immediately to a Ziploc bag to catch the steam as they cool. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel them then seed and chop very fine.
Peel and core the tomatoes. I find the fastest way to peel is to drop them in boiling water for a minute then drop them in cold water for a minute. The skin almost slides off. Chop the large tomatoes roughly. Chop the plum tomatoes very fine.
In the stock pot that you are going to make the chili in (non-reactive pot), saute the onion until translucent then add the garlic. Saute until you can get a good whiff from the garlic then add the peppers. Let them saute just a minute and add the rest of the ingredients. Lower the heat to simmer and let it go uncovered until it thickens to the consistency that you like. Taste for heat, salt and pepper as it goes along. You can adjust the heat with chili powder if you like, or your favorite hot sauce. You can also adventure deeper into the chili pepper arena, add more or different peppers to your liking. Also, if you prefer red beans, go for it. Or go beanless. Different strokes....you know.