In Making Food on September 13, 2010 at 8:47 am

Week 28

It being football season and all, and me being slightly infatuated with my slow cooker, and having found a gigantic angus beef chuck roast from Mint Creek Farm in our freezer, I decided to make chili. More specifically, Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili, which is ridiculously simple and deceptively delicious. She had cards printed up with the recipe, and gave it out freely, calling it “almost as popular as the government pamphlet on the care and feeding of children.” (More, probably. Those things aren’t exactly page-turners.)

In addition to being a hell of a chili maker, Lady Bird was also the first First Lady to actively advocate for legislation. Her pet cause was the Highway Beautification Act, which limited roadside and billboard advertising, and encouraged median and roadside landscaping, prompting The Husband, whenever we drive past a particularly pretty highway median planting, to say solemnly: “Thank you, Lady Bird.”

Lady Bird, by the way, is not her real name. Her first name’s Claudia, but as a child, her nurse apparently commented that she was “purty as a ladybird,” and the nickname stuck. Given that a ladybird is a kind of beetle — i.e., not a bird — the compliment seems, well, dubious. To be fair, ‘ladybird’ is the British term for ‘ladybug,’ but still: some might justifiably take exception to an insect-related nickname.

Like I said, I’m currently obsessed with using my slow cooker,but I’ll give you stove-top instructions since I don’t want to presume anyone else is as crockpot-infatuated as I am. (Though have you tried using slow cooker liners? I don’t usually advocate buying extra packaging-type stuff, but oh man: these’ll become your new best clean-up friend. Please don’t tell me if they have phthalates.)

Dice a large white onion and mince two cloves of garlic, and saute the aromatics in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add four pounds chili meat (beef chuck that’s either been coarsely ground or cut into quarter-inch dice), and brown the meat. Add 1 tablespoon dried oregano, 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 3 tablespoons chili powder, a pinch of cayenne, generous salt, a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, and 2 teaspoons (or tablespoons) of liquid hot sauce. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the meat is tender — it should take about an hour, but it certainly won’t suffer if you let it go longer. (Purists, note that I’ve roughly tripled the amount of oregano, cumin and hot sauce, doubled the amount of chili powder and tomatoes, inserted cayenne, and omitted the two cups of hot water LadyBJ’s original recipe called for.)

I did this in my slow cooker, though, so I skipped the oil and the browning steps, and just chucked all of the raw ingredients into the crockpot, turned it on high, and went to lie down on the couch and do absolutely nothing for three hours while the chili cooked. The whole prep process took exactly 12 minutes, which included: wrestling with a particularly unyielding onion skin; having a hell of a time separating individual cloves from a head of garlic; trying to find the jar of cumin (which, naturally, was on the back of the sink next to the hand soap); dealing with a can opener that wouldn’t finish opening the can of tomatoes; swearing loudly at said can opener; and dicing a five-pound blob of angus chuck roast. (Though to be honest, I did not break the chuck down into minute, exacting, quarter-inch dice. It was more like a sloppy rough one-inch chop. I mean no disrespect to either the Former First Lady or the Pedernales River Basin.)

I’ll usually add some kidney or pinto beans to my chili, though not frozen corn, because my dad always added frozen corn to his chili, and I loved it, but eventually I learned the hard way that most other people in the world hate corn in their chili and/or think you’re crazy for putting it in there in the first place. So the hominy was a bean substitute, a nod to my dad’s chili, and a subtle nose-thumb to everyone who thinks corn in chili is whack.

But I wasn’t exactly sure when to add the hominy to the chili. Nor was I exactly sure what hominy was, so I spent some of my inert three hours doing some half-hearted gastronomic research. Hominy’s basically corn that’s been dried, then soaked in an alkali mixture to remove the bran and the husk. The soaking process increases the nutritional value of the corn, unlocking the lysine and tryptophan amino acids as well the niacin and B vitamins, and also doubles the size of the kernel. If you re-dry the soaked hominy, you can grind it, and then you’ve got grits. (In New Orleans, they call the whole hominy kernels ‘big hominy,’ and the ground grits ‘little hominy.’)

But this alkali thing had me confused. Most of what I read online listed lye as the principal soaking agent, but the can of hominy in my pantry said the corn had been processed with lime. Not being super-familiar with the distinction between “lye” and “lime,” I searched the internet, and was mildly disturbed to see the title of the third result: what works best to disintegrate a human body, lye or lime? Even more disturbing was the one-sentence content preview, which read, in part, “hey dude a 44 gallon drum half full of acid will do the trick, 58hrs37 min and all gone.”

I did not click on this particular search result, which seemed 1) entirely unrelated to my hominy quest and 2) pretty much guaranteed to give me nightmares.

I decided that maybe I already knew everything there was to know about hominy, and I added it to the chili after about two hours, which I figured would be enough time for it to absorb some flavor and heat through, but not enough time for it to disintegrate or anything. (I don’t know if hominy disintegrates, but the aforementioned web search had indelibly planted the word ‘disintegration’ in my mind.)

After three-ish hours, we were too hungry to wait any longer, so we ate. Which is too bad, because the chili really could’ve benefited from a longer stint in the slow cooker. The meat was almost-but-not-quite-fall-apart-tender; the texture seemed a little thin (which is the curse of the slow cooker); and I really should’ve stirred the pot once or twice during cooking. Plus I think it would’ve benefited from the beans after all, texture-wise, since the hominy didn’t seem to add much, and I probably could’ve added more of it, along with salt and hot sauce. But like I said: hunger called.

As usual, I was super-critical of what I’d making, poking derisively through the bowl with my spoon and offering a steady stream of the-many-ways-in-which-this-could-be-better commentary, while The Husband plowed through a bowl like nothing was wrong. When I asked him if he thought it needed beans, he looked at me blankly and said, “No. Yes?”

We ate it topped with a healthy dose of sour cream, more hot sauce, chopped raw onions, and shredded colby jack.

CoJack might seem like a weird choice for a girl who works around fancy cheese all day, but all of the orange cheddars at the store today tasted bitter and poisony (to me, anyway), and I have some weird, atavistic Midwestern aversion to white cheddar on top of my chili. We left the slow cooker on low overnight, and in the morning, the chili was perfect. The flavors had deepened, the meat was falling apart, and the hominy had plumped up a bit, making it both more noticeable and more toothsome. Chili’s always better the next day, anyway, and apparently so is my mood.

  1. I think it would be interesting to point some other places where lye or lime are used in food processing…

    Besides hominy and grits, corn tortillas and chips (the good ones anyways) are made from corn processed with lime. Also corn nuts are basically fried hominy. Olives can be processed with lime too.

    Lye is used to process chocolate and coco, lutfisk, and a solution of lye and water is spread on pretzels to make them crisp.

    I was just reading about using lye or lime to leach the tannins out of acorns…

  2. Correction: I used canned corn! (Maybe I used frozen once to save a trip to the store but I would have learned quickly not to do that again!) And, fittingly, I called my “product” Chili con Corny! (Sorry about all the exclamations.)

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