Inauthentic but genuine: my take on a recipe for chili powder

Introduction

(if you are not interested in the how’s and why’s, you can just jump to the recipe.)chili powder

My parents are from out west and so I grew up eating home-cooked Mexican food. Now with a family of my own, we often do the same — with some differences of course. I’m much more likely to do some research and try to create more authentic dishes than my parents and of course now there is a general focus on fresh, quality ingredients. Back in the ’70s? Not so much.

Surprisingly though, “authentic” had very little to do with me creating my own chili powder. My first discovery on researching this was that chili powder, like so many “Mexican” dishes in the U.S. has nothing to do with Mexican cuisine. While there are various accounts about who invented it, and I think the best claim for inventing what most of us use goes to one Willie Gebhardt. If you read through that article, you’ll see that chili powder was basically the invention of an German immigrant to America looking for a way to preserve chilies.

First, chili was only a seasonal food during the late 1800s as fresh chilies were not available during the fall and winter months. Moreover, no known method for keeping chilies fresh existed at the time. Although dried chilies were known, they were mostly reconstituted with hot water and then diced and served in the chili. However, their texture was tough and they lost much of their flavor. Fresh chilies were preferred. Willie discovered that if he dried his chili peppers and ground them into a flavoring powder, he could keep the concoction fresh for months at a time.

And so chili powder was born. The current commercial process used to create it is, from what I’ve been able to discover, basically the same – the dried chilies and spices are soaked in a combination of water and alcohol, the liquid is expelled/drained and the cakes of spice mixture are then dried at around 125° F. Now, I’ve made a bit of an amateur study of herbs and the preservation of them (drying, extracts, etc.) and I know that if you’re trying to preserve as much of the original flavor as possible, you don’t soak plant-based materials in liquid, remove the liquid, and then subject it to more heat. What’s left over has as much in common with unprocessed dried chilies as an old tea bag has with unused loose tea. So I set about to see if I could make something better.

It should be noted that, according to some websites, the U.S. government has standards for the labeling of what can be sold as chili powder. Unfortunately, with the many reports of lead and salmonella contamination of commercial chili powders, I don’t think that makes me feel any safer. One of my goals in this was to use as many whole, unprocessed ingredients as possible, as that’s honestly the best way to avoid many contamination issues. Can spices, even whole ones, still contain bad stuff? You bet. But I try to buy from trustworthy sources and I know nothing I do in the processing of these ingredients is going to introduce something I don’t want.

In addition to the above reasons, there were a few other factors that served as inspiration for this recipe.

  1. I wanted a lot of flavor and not crazy amounts of heat. This was both to make this as general purpose as possible and to meet the needs of several “baby-mouths” in my family. If you want more heat, you can either use different peppers or just add however much cayenne powder you wish. But the focus of this is really to create layers of flavor.
  2. I’m not a huge fan of Indian cuisine, but I love the culture that’s built up around it – particularly the masala. These spice mixtures, while sold here in the U.S. in bland plastic containers with words like “Authentic!” printed on it, are in India all different based on geography and family. The preparation and ingredients are matters of familial, ethnic, and regional identity and in chili powder, I saw the opportunity to create essentially the North American version of that. So experiment with what I have outlined below and make it your own.
  3. In that same spirit, I’ve outlined a “base” recipe and then highlight some additional ingredients and preparation steps that you can look at – either to do yourself, or perhaps give you ideas of your own.

JB’s Chili Powder

Ingredients

Where possible, I’ve linked to my usual sources for ingredients, but please feel free to buy from wherever you want. Also, be aware that when I make this, it’s usually a batch four times as big, so some of my sources are geared to much larger amounts than called for in this recipe.

Do me this favor: do not buy spices from the supermarket. Even with whole spices, sitting forever on shelves under bright fluorescents in clear bottles is not a good thing. If you have access to a Latin market, try there as there will be enough turnover to help ensure some sort of freshness — otherwise, the Internet is your friend.

Chilieschilies

Lightly roast the chiles over lowish heat, being careful not to burn them. The ancho in particular may require a little bit longer. You’re trying to bake as much of the moisture out of them as possible (yes, dried chilies can and do still have moisture in them). What I often do is after grilling dinner, when the coals have burned down a bit, I’ll stick the chilies in — making sure that they are only receiving indirect heat. If you have some wood chips or there was already wood chunks on the coals, all the better in my opinion. Of course, if you hate fire and fun, all of this can be done in an oven too (but not the microwave for goodness’ sake!).

How you do you know when they’re done? Well, this is one of the other ways my recipe goes off the beaten path. Google “DIY chili powder” and almost all of them will tell you to remove the stem and seeds before you roast them. I, of course, laugh at convention – and with good reason. By keeping the stem and seeds, you have essentially a deflated balloon. When the pepper is placed on the heat, the air and water that is left inside starts expanding and re-inflating the pepper. You can see exactly what I mean in this video:

Ideally, slow roast the peppers (with smoke added if you wish) at about 250° F for about 5 minutes and then find a little bit of direct heat right over the coals (or in a skillet on high if doing this the not-fun, no-fire way) and keep turning them until they start to inflate and remove them before there’s any burning. Seriously – these are for the most part mild peppers, but you do not want to breath in smoke from burning chilies. BAD IDEA.

When done, the chilies will have softened to an almost leather-like consistency. Remove from heat and layout in a thin layer on a cookie sheet or cooling rack to cool down. As soon as they are safe to touch, remove the stem and split open to remove seeds BUT FIRST, get some gloves.

Remember, you’re not just touching peppers as you would when cutting fresh ones, you’re digging around, pulling off stems and removing seeds. Even with relatively mild peppers like these, your day will go very quickly south if you touch anywhere on your body with hands covered in chili oil. You’ve been warned! Oh, and if using the chipotle peppers, get to them as soon as you can. As they have already been roasted and smoked, when they cool off, they’ll basically be as hard as rocks. At the very least, get them de-stemmed and split in half as soon as you can – the seeds can come out after they’ve cooled more if necessary.

If you want more heat in the final chili powder, I suggest going with hotter peppers but still taking the seeds out – yes that is where the heat is, but ground up in a powder (if you can get them ground up at all) it adds an unpleasant bitterness.

For now, hold off on grinding the  peppers — we’re going to get a little help with that first. But do check to see if there are any that aren’t quite crisp all the way around yet and finish them off in a toaster oven or on the stove top. We need them as crispy as possible without actually being burnt.

Spice mix and preparationcumin

As the peppers are completed, put them aside and then assemble the following:
(and yes – these are, unless otherwise specified, all by weight, not by volume – trust me, this works much better)

Possible additions (I actually use all of these)

Before the next step, I advise toasting the cumin seeds and then, along with the sea salt and the cacao nibs, run them through the food processor, a separate small spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle (if you have one …which you totally should). Otherwise they may be a little too chunky to break down.

Bringing it all together

Now, some people use dedicated spice grinders for this and ol’ Willie Gebhardt used a coffee grinder for his, but I prefer the food processor. Most spice grinders are too small for this type of application and electric coffee grinders (yes, even the nice burr ones) tend to overheat oil-rich items (especially sticky, soft, dried peppers), imparting a scorched taste to the finished product. The food processor with its big chopping blade and ample space will work much better.

So go ahead and put your de-stemmed and de-seeded peppers in the food processor, and start pulsing the blade. After a few pulses, add about half the spice mixture above and pulse on and off for about 30 seconds. Now add the rest of the spice mixture and continue pulsing for another 30 to 60 seconds until the mixture is as fine a powder as it will get and well mixed. The idea is that the spices themselves will help break down the chilies.

Now you can go ahead and stop there if you wish, but if you want to help make sure the powder is as fine as possible, what I do is put it, in small batches, through a strainer-sifter. Take whatever is left that didn’t go through the sifter and run it through the food processor again (or a smaller spice grinder or a mortar and pestle if you have one …which you totally should). You’ll likely always end up with a few larger flakes rather than a perfectly uniform powder, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The main thing is to make sure all the seeds have been removed, as well as possible, at each step.

Storage

So we’ve completed this Herculean task of making our own chili powder! Yay! Go us! Now put it in your cupboard and be happy! Wait…

Your cupboard/spice cabinet is in your kitchen, right? Probably not too far away from your stove top, microwave, oven, etc. And there’s probably quite a bit of light in there, huh? For most spices bought from a mega-mart, that’s probably not going to do any more harm to them then has already been done. But this chili powder – it deserves better.

Here’s what we don’t want: light, heat, and air. So we need something preferably opaque, in a stable, cool environment and an air-tight container. Let’s take a page from how you should be treating your coffee: put it in the freezer. In an airtight container in the freezer, this stuff will keep at almost peak freshness for …well, a lot longer than the six months or so that Mr. Gebhardt managed, that’s for sure. And please make sure the container truly is air tight, and the container is non-reactive (so no plastics!). If you take care of it, it will take care of you.

Smoked Sea Salt

smoked sea saltIt hardly seems fit to call this a recipe. It’s just too easy. But since I continue to get questions about it, here you go:

On a large steel cooking sheet or aluminum pan, spread about 2 lbs of coarse sea salt. In your grill or smoker (again, this works really well if you start it after a normal grilling session), add in some wood (presoaked for at least 4 hours in water). I’ve used oak, hickory, maple, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite — and various combinations thereof. Put the cookie sheet with the salt on the grill, close the grill and go do something else for 20 minutes. Come back and with a metal or silicone spatula, stir the salt around. If you need to add more wood, do that too. Now go do something else for about 20 to 30 minutes. Or an hour. It doesn’t really matter at this point. It’s not like you can burn the salt after all! Basically, get it as smokey as you want and bam! You’re done!

So what to do with it after that? Well, you can use it in a chili powder recipe obviously. And it makes a great fancy finishing salt. On top of a quality dark chocolate, it’s pretty much divine, or a couple of grains added to a dish of ice cream with a chocolate or butterscotch sauce will rock your socks off. Basically, whatever you want. My family likes it so much, we bought one of these and put it, fresh ground, on pretty much everything — but especially on popcorn with a little of that True Lime I mentioned above. Best. Popcorn. Ever.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Ice Cream (no dough!)

Photo of Chocolate Chunk Cookie Ice Cream with ingredients in background

Photo of Chocolate Chunk Cookie Ice Cream with ingredients in backgroundWhen inspired to create a new recipe, it is often as a result of finding something in an existing recipe or product that doesn’t quite work for me. For example, my Yeast-Raised Waffles were the result of my father’s use of a similar recipe from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook when I was growing up and me thinking they were almost perfect and then setting about to make them absolutely perfect once I had my own damn waffle iron 🙂

This recipe had similar origins, but in this case, it was dissatisfaction with a product not a recipe – namely Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream. Wildly popular since I believe Ben & Jerry’s first introduced it some time in the ’80s, I’d always liked it, but it fell short in a couple areas. First, while it is tasty, its blobs of dough mixed in a vanilla base are like little oases of flavor in an otherwise unremarkable sea of vanilla-ness. Secondly, in the many imitators and commercial versions out there now, more often than not you get low-quality vanilla ice cream mixed with low-quality cookie “dough” (sarcastic air quotes most definitely called for). What to do?

And then it hit me. Why add dough to the ice cream when you could make the ice cream TASTE like the cookie? And not like cookie dough, but like an actual baked cookie! Because my daughter has an egg allergy, I decided to work off a Philadelphia-style ice cream recipe (made without eggs) and why look any further than Alton Brown’s “Serious Vanilla Ice Cream“? I sat down and compared the ingredient lists of that ice cream and my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe (to be published later!). I then did a little research. Then scribbled some notes. Then I did a lot of thinking – taste testing in my head as it were.

I wanted something that had the buttery richness of the chocolate chip cookie dough and the toffee notes from the brown sugar. I wanted something where the walnuts (a requirement of my cookie recipe, but pecans may be substituted if you absolutely must) had that oven-baked texture of a nut that hitched a ride on a cookie on a trip through an oven. I wanted big, assertive chocolate chunks – just like I use in my cookies (“chips” are for wusses. Chocolate chunks are definitely the way to go).

After all that, I sketched out how I thought the recipe should go and have made it a couple of times now with surprisingly few alterations. What I bring you now is the result of all this research and experimentation. I still consider this recipe a “draft” and I know there are probably better ways to do this, but figured I’d put it out in the world and hopefully inspire someone to improve upon it. If anyone tries this, please let me know how it turns out and if you have any suggestions!

Chocolate Chip Chunk Cookie Ice Cream (no dough!)

By Jason Byrne,
partially based on Alton Brown’s Serious Vanilla Ice Cream recipe

Prep Time: Ten hours
Cooking Time: Around an hour

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. Salted butter
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar (white granulated or I often use a Turbinado sugar)
  • 1 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 cup candied walnuts, broken or chopped into pieces (see recipe below)
  • 1 cup chocolate chunks (I prefer Baker’s brand)

Combine candied walnuts and chocolate chunks in a small bowl and put in freezer.

In a sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of sugar on moderately high heat in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart or 3-quart saucepan. As the sugar begins to melt, stir vigorously. As soon as the sugar comes to a boil, stop stirring but keep moving around pan gently. As soon as all of the sugar has melted and turned dark amber in color, add 2 tablespoons of the salted butter to the pan. Whisk until the butter has melted and as much of the butter has become incorporated as possible. Now, because of the proportions, this will not come together like a regular caramel sauce and there may be little bits of melted better that refuse to mix in with the sugar. This is totally okay, as in addition to caramel notes, we’re also looking for the butter to brown a slight bit. Keep on low heat and while keeping it all in motion, add the milk and cream. If caramel bits are not melting, you can bump up the heat a little. Now add the dark brown and white granulated sugar, stirring until well combined. Add the vanilla extract and the cocoa powder.

Adjust heat to medium. Attach a frying or candy thermometer to inside of pan. (If you do not have a thermometer, bring the mixture just barely to a simmer. As soon as you see a bubble hit the surface, remove it from the heat. Do not let it boil) Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to 170 degrees F. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Pour mixture into lidded container and refrigerate mixture overnight to mellow flavors and texture.

Process mixture in ice cream freezer according to unit’s instructions. The mixture will not freeze hard in the machine. Once the volume has increased by 1/2 to 3/4 times, and reached a soft serve consistency, spoon the mixture back into a lidded container. Add frozen candied walnuts pieces and chocolate chunks to mix and quickly and thoroughly incorporate into the ice cream. The longer it takes, the worse it is for the ice cream. Once everything is incorporated, seal container and harden in the freezer at least 1 hour before serving.

The result?

Because this is a Philly-style ice cream rather than a French-style (made with egg yolks and first cooked as a custard), the ice cream itself is a little lighter tasting than some traditional ice creams, but with so many developed and complex flavors, it really hits your tastebuds. You could modify a French-style recipe and do this, but with all the other flavors going on, I think it might end up to be almost too rich tasting. What started out as necessity because of my daughter’s allergy ended up actually being my preference. I love serendipity in cooking!

Instead of whole chocolate chunks, you can go for smaller chips or chop up the chunks in a food processor a bit before mixing in. The candied walnuts bring additional “cookie” flavors as well as added texture.

While still undeniably ice cream, because of all those cooked butter and sugar flavor notes, you really do end up with something that tastes like a baked cookie. And not just in dribs and drabs, but with every spoonful.

As stated earlier, this is a draft recipe and probably will (and should) be revised a bit. But even in this fairly initial state, the resulting ice cream is one of my favorites.


Candied Walnuts

  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup walnut halves
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the walnuts and cook, stirring, until golden brown and toasted, 3 minutes. Add the sugar and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer to a piece of waxed paper to cool.

Certain ingredients are magic

Many things go into a successful dish – the techniques chosen for the preparation, the execution of the preparation, the quality of the ingredients and the ingredients themselves. However, there are some ingredients that can not only raise a rather good dish to the level of the sublime, they can sometime even rescue an only so-so meal and make it something special.

This is a very subjective list – crafted from my own rather warped experience and tastes, but I would love to hear what other ingredients people use that they regard the same way. Okay, here we go:

Top Eleven “Magical” Ingredients:

Why eleven? I wanted to do only ten, but couldn’t choose one of the following to cut, so we have eleven. I apologize to all the OCD folks out there.

11. Smoked paprika

Spanish smoked paprika
Spanish smoked paprika

Think paprika is something to just sprinkle on your Deviled Eggs? A major spice primarily known (and grown) in Hungary and Spain, smoked varieties are usually inspired most strongly by the Spanish variety Pimentón de la Vera – dried via smoking over oak. While some paprika can be on the spicy side, all of the smoked varieties I’ve sampled are usually from the sweeter bell-type peppers. Generally, paprika from the non-spicy peppers is often used merely for color, but the smoked variety is something else entirely.

For its ability to really bring a smooth smokey flavor to dishes, especially those with beef or pork, smoked paprika is a commonly deployed ingredient in my spice arsenal. As with green peppers, it plays well with any number of flavors and the smokiness is a subtle note that brings much depth.

10. Baby spinach

Baby Spinach
Baby Spinach

Growing up, when it came to raw leafy greens, I pretty much ate iceberg lettuce and nothing else. My family had a salad at pretty much 4 out of every 5 meals, and it was almost always iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and green olives. However, when I was in my teens (during the mid-80s), other varieties started to appear in restaurants with more frequency and then on grocery store shelves. Baby greens of all types – tender, sometimes bitter but with a pleasant astringency were amazing after eating the watery blandness of iceberg so long. But one always stood above the others to me – baby spinach.

Now, I was an odd child (no change since then obviously) who loved cooked spinach (w/ butter, tarragon vinegar, and a dash of salt – Yum!) Anyway, once I tasted raw baby spinach, I started adding it to all sorts of things as a replacement for regular lettuce. My BLT would become a BST and was more delicious for the substitution – something that held true on every sandwich I ever tried it on. Instead of lettuce on my tacos, I had baby spinach. Instead of a garden salad with iceberg lettuce, I’d have a spinach salad w/ roma tomatoes, toasted walnuts, bacon and blue cheese dressed with balsamic vinegar. In case you were wondering, that’s what heaven tastes like.

Trust me – use baby spinach next time you reach for iceberg or romaine. It’s like lettuce, but with flavor!

9. Billington’s Natural Dark Brown Molasses Sugar

Billington's Natural Dark Brown Sugar
Billington’s Natural Dark Brown Sugar

The only brand-specific ingredient on this list. This is a muscovado cane brown sugar from Mauritius – unrefined and rich, complex with wonderful toffee notes. This can be used anywhere you’d use normal brown sugar, and I also use only this (and no white sugar) in my chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread. It’s also great added to bbq sauces and rubs. I know you’re skeptical that any brand or type of brown sugar could be that much different from any other, but this one truly is exceptional.

I used to be able to purchase it from my local supermarket, but they stopped carrying it, so I now go to trusty Amazon to find it.

8. Quality balsamic vinegar (both regular and white)

A bottle of Aceto Balsamico di Modena, aged for eight years.
A bottle of Aceto Balsamico di Modena, aged for eight years.

I’ve long been one to make my own salad dressings (one of the many skills which initially impressed my wife), and that’s when I first started experimenting with different types of vinegar. Apple cider, tarragon, rice wine, etc. — all of them can be handy widgets to keep on hand to tweak a recipe, but my favorite is balsamic vinegar.

So what does it do besides salads? Well, personally, my favorite usage is a splash of olive oil, balsamic and worcestershire sauce mixed together and lightly brushed on steaks and burgers – the sugars in the balsamic richly caramelize and blend with the umami of the steak and worcestershire. Also I suggest adding a bit to any tomato-based sauce, and even as a dessert with ripe strawberries.

Don’t buy the cheap stuff. However, you likely can’t even afford the really good stuff ($150 to $400 a bottle), which is in fact a completely different product than what you usually can buy at the store or even is available at most restaurants. (explanation). So what to do? Well, as with most ingredients, sample as much as you can and buy what you like. Personally I like to have two types on hand – one for the more “bulk” uses like the aforementioned steaks, and something a little more upscale for something like a dessert or where the balsamic is really highlighted as an ingredient – my favorite application would be to lightly dress an Insalata Caprese.

For the “nice” one, look for something like Lucini Gran Riserva Balsamico. For everyday, I recommend either Monari Federzoni Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or Colavita Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.

7. Hollandaise

Hollandaise
Hollandaise – the opposite of pure evil

One of the five “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine, this is something that would entice me to eat shoe leather. An emulsion of egg yolks and butter seasoned with lemon juice (and in my case a pinch of both red and white pepper), it is the difference between Eggs Benedict being transcendent and being something like an Egg McMuffin.If that black, smoking cinder in the movie Time Bandits was “pure evil,” well then hollandaise is its opposite.

In it’s traditional form, it’s the perfect sauce to enhance salmon, asparagus, broccoli, artichokes, and in my opinion pretty much anything else. And as a “mother sauce,” there are countless variations, including my favorite for steaks – Sauce Béarnaise. Indeed, once you master this sauce, the world will beat a path to your door and gifts will be placed at your feet.

…and that’s the trouble. It is notoriously difficult to master using the traditional technique of a double boiler, carefully controlling the heat to melt the butter and not curdling the egg yolks, all the while whisking and whisking and whisking to bring the emulsion together. Variations on this technique all try to make it easier and inevitably fail. Luckily,  along came Julia Child who, like Moses, showed us the promised land – a technique that eschews the snooty, classic French technique for a blender and microwave — and in my opinion turns out a superior product. If you google “julia child blender hollandaise” you will inevitably find many copies of it – I particularly liked this one as it tied in mentions to Julia’s book My Life in France. Only difference in my version is I heat the butter in the microwave instead of a saucepan and instead of black pepper (which has to be a typo), I use the combination of red (cayenne) and white pepper.

6. Salt (in all its various forms)

Salt - a vertitable palette
Salt – a vertitable palette

As I stated at the note at the end of this article, when I was a kid I wasn’t able to smell things very well, so I tended to focus on sweet or salty flavors. My love of salty things has never gone away, but I have learned to be a little more selective about it. I’ve also come to appreciate the different ways salt can play a part in a dish.

At any moment, I probably have between 6 and 8 types of salt in house for cooking. If I could, I’d have even more. And on that note, let me chime in on something: “sea salt” is not in any way healthier than regular iodized table salt. Especially in the quantities you’re consuming in most dishes, it’s chemically identical, except of course for the lack of iodine – so in a way, it’s less healthy for you. The same is true for all those fancy colored salts you see.

So if its all the same, why do I have so many? Well, here’s what I’ve got currently on-hand and what I use it for:

  • Iodized table salt – table use
  • Kosher salt – use whenever I can in cooking (and sometimes in baking) or when large texture crystals are desired
  • Sea salt – almost never use it, though it works well on the edge of a Bloody Mary with fresh ground black pepper.
  • smoked sea salt – this is an all natural product where the salt is actually smoked. Provides a smoky undertone to many dishes, and since it is also a large crystal form, it’s great for display purposes or where you’re looking for the texture.
  • Red Hawaiian sea salt – used as much for display purposes as anything. Quite tasty to have a few grains sprinkled on a dish of vanilla ice cream drizzled with tupelo honey.
  • Popcorn salt – actually rarely use on popcorn, but great for homemade chips and anywhere you want salty taste but very little texture.

While too much salt can be unhealthy, I find that by using the right salt for a dish, I will often use less overall. I also like to use it in unexpected places – like the sprinkling on ice cream drizzled with honey I mentioned above, or most especially anything with chocolate. That thing that salt does to make it a flavor amplifier? Well, with chocolate, the effect is more pronounced and will make your tastebuds stand up at attention. Try it — trust me.

5. Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (aka graham flour)

Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
Whole Wheat Pastry Flour

As brown sugar is also on this list, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I like to bake as well as cook. Indeed, it was  my first love in the kitchen, from the very first time I made cornbread and then chocolate chip cookies at about the age of 4 or 5. I took this pile of  . . . stuff, and by the time I was done, it was something solid and delicious. It seemed like magic, and in many ways, it still does. Generally, bakers are a different class of people than cooks – I think in large part because a lot of the techniques in baking are very different from those in cooking, and the main ingredients are more nuanced but less varied.

Whole wheat pastry flour is one of those nuanced ingredients. It is a whole wheat flour, but is like no whole wheat flour you’ve ever tried.  First, like any pastry flour, it’s lower in protein, which means that it’s not going to give you a crusty bread no matter how much you knead it, but it will give you soft, tender cookies and flaky pie crusts, as well as the world’s best waffles. One of the other things that makes it stand out, is that in traditional whole wheat flour, the three parts of the wheat kernel (bran, germ, and endosperm) are all ground together at the same time, but with whole wheat pastry flour, they’re all ground separately (at different levels of coarseness) and then combined again. This results in a much different flour that in my experience also keeps longer than traditional whole wheat flours (which can go rancid with too much time/heat/etc because of the oil content of the wheat germ.)

I use this for pretty much any soft cookie, muffins, cakes, pancakes, waffles, pastry crusts, biscuits, etc., usually in conjunction with some all-purpose unbleached white flour, but at different ratios than you’d usually use when using both. You can even go 100% whole wheat pastry flour without it tasting like regular 100% whole wheat flour products (i.e. like shag carpeting). One thing to note: “white whole wheat flour” is not the same as “whole wheat pastry flour” – the former has almost twice as much gluten (aka protein) as the latter, and will give you much different results.

4. Thickcut or “country” center cut applewood smoked bacon

BACON!
BACON!

All bacon is good. This is an axiom. However, it is also axiomatic that some types of bacon are better than others. My personal favorite is a thick-cut bacon smoked over applewood available at my local Costco. You bite into this stuff, and it sinks a hook into your brain that never goes away. It IS everything bacon should be. Perfect to cook ahead of time for a BST (see baby spinach above), bacon crumbles for mac and cheese, or I suppose one could just grab a cooked strip out of the fridge at midnight and eat it there in the kitchen where you’re standing in your underwear. I, needless to say, have never done this. Also, all Cretans are liars.

Unfortunately, this is not the best type of bacon to use for one of my favorite dishes — the charcoal-grilled, bacon-wrapped, and dry-aged filet mignon that if you’ve eaten at my house I’ve likely fed you. Thickcut bacon doesn’t work well when wrapped around a filet – just ends up floppy and undercooked. Instead use a peppered regular thickness (but still center cut) bacon for that, but for everything else use the thickcut applewood bacon. After eating it, you’ll realize you were just faking it with every other bacongasm you’ve had before now.

3. Prosciutto

Prosciutto
Prosciutto e Melone ❤

More pork products! Which is rather funny, since I have not historically been the biggest fan of pork – or so I thought. I mean I liked bacon of course from the beginning, but disliked all the rest of it. I have since discovered pork tenderloin (and big surprise, specifically grilled pork tenderloin), smoked country hams, lechón, and prosciutto. Basically all I don’t like now is pork chops, that watery stuff that gets sold as “ham” so many places, and pigs feet. I’m not budging on those three.

The first time I had prosciutto was at a local Italian restaurant where it was served wrapped around wedges of cantaloupe and honeydew. Some sort of italian dry ham wrapped around slices of melon? What the hell? And then I tasted it . . .

<sigh>

More subtle than bacon, velvety in texture, and excellent on just about everything. Other than the aforementioned treatment with melons (which I still absolutely love), another fave is to take asparagus (steamed or grilled), toss it with some lemon juice and olive oil and then sprinkle freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and top with strips of prosciutto. This is one of those ingredients where you just want to keep experimenting with it, and it offers such rewards when you  do!

2. Lump charcoal

Chunk charcoal
A bed of chunk charcoal all ready to go

This may seem somewhat of an odd choice to list as an ingredient, but I absolutely believe that if you are cooking on a grill, it should be over charcoal, not gas, and that charcoal should be lump charcoal and never, ever under any circumstances briquettes. Personally I use this brand, but if it is honest-to-goodness lump charcoal, the brand shouldn’t matter.

First, regarding gas vs. charcoal — gas is convenient and easy, and like most things like that, it doesn’t work very well. Too much moisture in the gas combustion, and so you never get the same sear as you do over charcoal. And if you’re not going for a good sear, why the hell are you cooking it on the grill? Secondly, regarding briquettes: if you love the taste and smell of petrochemicals, by all means keep using briquettes. Also, keep using them if you hate the environment, like your food covered in soot, and like waiting forever for something to cook.

Lump charcoal is basically just the leftover matrix of carbon and impurities resulting from burning whole pieces of wood in an oxygen-deficient environment. No wax, no wood pulp, no petrochemicals that make your grilled fish taste like it was raised in a lake of gasoline. And it burns clean, hot, and even. It does burn more quickly than briquettes, but I solve this by starting two charcoal chimneys full of the stuff and by having a big-ass grill. Also, since it doesn’t have all those chemicals that off-gas into your food, you can even start a charcoal chimney to add later and not have to worry about it altering the flavor of food. As you can see from how many times I’ve mentioned grilling in the text above, this is a subject I take fairly seriously.

1. Butter

butter
Mmmmmm….butter. It makes it better.

My mother: “Whatever it is, butter makes it better.” My mother is a very wise woman. I don’t believe there is another single ingredient that can have such a broad impact across the entire kitchen. And I’m not speaking of margarine or any other sort of half-assed substitute. That stuff will kill you. And yes, so will butter if you have too much of it, which is why butter is the Spiderman of the kitchen – with great power, comes great responsibility. Luckily, you don’t have to drench things in butter for its presence to be felt. A little can indeed go a long way, and also pay attention to the type of butter. Your usual supermarket salted butter is fine for most cooking applications, but for many baking applications, you’re want to go with unsalted butter. However, for me this does not include my chocolate chip cookies, where I act the rebel and use salted butter. Why? Because it’s chocolate! And as we discussed under “Salt”, chocolate and salt like to make out. If you’re worried about the sodium that goes along with salted butter, you can go with unsalted, but it won’t be as good. I don’t say this to be mean, but to act as a segue into this: cooking (as with life) is often about compromise.

Conclusion: Ingredients matter because good food matters

There are some ingredients in this list that the American Heart Association isn’t too happy about. And you know what? I don’t care. No, not because I’ve gone all Ted Nugent on you, but rather because these ingredients make me (and most people who eat them) happy, plain and simple. They make food be something more than just fuel for the machine of our bodies; with them food becomes a source of inspiration for our souls.

Growing up, skinny as a rail and apathetic towards food, all food was simply fuel for the machine and I resented having to deal with it. I only took joy in candy and snacks, never regular food. Not the best environment to learn good eating (or cooking!) habits! As I got older and put some health issues behind me, all that has changed. And as a result, my attitude towards food has changed as well and I’ve become more observant about how others deal with food.

For most of us, our entire American food culture is built around that concept of “fuel for the machine” – we want it cheap, we want it fast, and we want it to satisfy us while we stuff it in our faces while we’re eating in our cars in the parking lot. No “real” food could do that – only processed, engineered food has the ability to make us think we’re enjoying it in those types of circumstances. It’s got “bad” fats, sodium, corn syrup, and no nutrients – and that’s sometimes just the salad!

I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that by enjoying the ingredients above and trying to work with them in a healthy way, I enjoy my food more, and when I enjoy my food, I eat better, I feel better, and as a parent I think I can say I teach my kids about food better. Working with “real” food means you have to be an adult – you don’t get to have bacon at every meal, you can’t use too much butter too often – this requires judgment and self-control in addition to cooking skills. Eating processed stuff means you’ve given up control over what goes into your body, how it’s prepared, and often times you can’t even find out what’s in it.

So pick your favorite ingredients and cook with them. Experiment with them. Even if they’re not “healthy” for you ( assuming they aren’t actually dangerous for you, e.g. allergies, health conditions, etc), if they’re something that requires you to cook something, then they’re better for you than anything processed.

Take joy in your ingredients and you’ll take joy in your food. Take joy in your food and you’ll notice what and how you’re eating and you’ll eat better. Eat better and you’ll feel better. Food is not merely calories – the choosing of ingredients, the preparation, the eating – these are things that exercise our brain and feed our soul. As I said at the beginning, I would love to hear in the comments what your favorite ingredients are!

And I don’t want to hear a single one of you say “I can’t cook!” – perhaps as long as 400,000 years ago, homo erectus may have been cooking and certainly by 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals were known to have cooked. And they had to make their own fire and catch and kill their own food. No homo sapien alive should ever complain about not knowing how to cook.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I care so much about food, read on:

Why I’m a foodie

I’ve only been a foodie for the last 10 years or so, and I come by it in a very roundabout way. Growing up, I didn’t eat. Well, of course I ate – but due to health issues, I never had much of an appetite and I simply couldn’t smell/taste many foods properly. So I was often so thin that when I turned sideways, I pulled a Kate Moss and disappeared. Given certain gravity conditions and time spent on The Rack, I might be able to claim 5′ 6″ and when I met my wife at the age of 22, I weighed all of 116lbs.

But then after, and I think due in some way to, meeting my wife, my health began to improve (being happy is a miracle drug) and I set about adding quite a few more pounds to my frame. Quite. A. Few.

However, in all of this I made a huge discovery. I now loved food. I really can’t overstate was a revelation this was. My whole life I had been an extremely picky eater — and because of the aforementioned inhibited sense of taste & smell, most of my likes involved strongly sweet or salty flavors. After all, when you can’t smell properly, food is bland and those flavors are really all that’s left that’s pleasurable. Most of my dislikes, of which there were many, involved either the texture of the food (mushrooms, pickles, shrimp) or an overwhelmingly heavy mouthfeel (mayo, gravy, sour cream).

But that had all changed! In addition to my improved health, I was now living in my own place, with my own kitchen, doing my own shopping and my own cooking. So not only could I taste stuff now, but I could learn to cook things just the way I liked them. This made a huge difference in how I appreciated food. I mean, both my parents and especially my mom, were actually especially good cooks, but they had much different tastes than I did. [NOTE TO PARENTS: You MUST teach both your sons and daughters to cook. Yes, it actually makes it more difficult to make meals with their “help” early on, but this is a life skill no one has an excuse not to learn. If your parents didn’t teach you properly, take classes — with your kids if you want, but seriously — if you expect your kids to grow up as healthy, functional adults, teach them to cook!]

And my wife Kathy was an appreciative audience! She’d grown up the second oldest of six kids and cooking was a chore which she was more than happy to let me do as often as I was willing to try. There were some spectacular failures early on. One – a Thai-style chicken dish with a peanut sauce is occasionally referenced as quite probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever made. But oh, the successes! Especially anything that can be cooked over a bed of charcoal or wood, I pretty much rock.

Over the years, in addition to becoming a much more adventuresome eater, I’ve become a much more accomplished home cook. And in thinking about this the other day, I realized that some ingredients are magical. And that’s what lead me to this post.