A Chili Cook Off of One

Every early November somethingth, our cozy little canyon community has a chili cook off and swap meet. I have participated in the cook off the past four or five years. It’s always the same group of us — Tom, who brings his homemade wine and last year forgot to put his truck in park and we all watched as it rolled off the cliff; my pal Dan, who won last year but drank too much during the morning and was passed out in his van when his name was announced; the young duo of Julian and Trevor, who object whenever I don’t win. Nobody cares much who wins or loses, it’s a lot of fun.

Winner!

I’ve never won. I came in second a couple years back. “Dude, you got robbed!” said Julian and Trevor, who won that year. More

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Queues and Barbecues

They asked me to do it again. Despite the lines — oh! the lines… — they asked me to do it again.

“Is there anything we can do about the lines?” they gingerly put forth.

Last Halloween, our children’s annual grade school Halloween carnival got an upgrade. It moved from school to the ballfield at the local community center, a live band would play, there would be a bar… And they asked me to do the food.

The Chef boogying at sunset

The chef/fairy/cow boogying at sunset

I was to cook for somewhere between 450 and 600 people. I was a week in preparation and was all set — except that the chimneys I needed for my coal were 90 minutes late. The carnival had opened at 3:30, people began queuing up for food at 4-ish. And I didn’t have anything to serve until close to 5 p.m., at which point the line had stretched from our home-plate set up well into left field. We would never catch up.

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Sidekicks

A friend of mine with a production company said he wants to make a TV show out of my food blog.

“That would be a gas,” I said. “I have good sidekicks.”

My best sidekick might be my 5-year-old daughter, Imogen. She’s foodier than many foodies I know.

Imogen at 2 years old, mistaking the serving utensils for her own

Imogen at 2 years old, mistaking the serving bowl for her own

“Something smells good,” she said the other night, strolling casually into the kitchen, gazing into the primavera I was making and zeroing in past the asparagus, kale, onion and carrot.

“”Dad, what’s that white stuff in the pan?”

“That’s lobster.”

“Do you think I would like it?” she said coyly.

That’s like the lion asking if you thought he’d like the antelope.

“Yeah, I would guess you might.”

Another night she came into the kitchen, and there was a rather large dry-aged rib eye sitting on the counter.

“Who’s that for?” she inquired.

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What are the qualities that make for a good sidekick? For the purposes of culinary adventures, I would guess they differ somewhat from what the Lone Ranger might’ve appreciated in Tonto. You needn’t be a good scout or tracker for example — except for finding the next great snack or meal.

Sidekicks extraordinaire, Don & Bob

Sidekicks extraordinaire, Don & Bob

A culinary sidekick should bring joy to the drinking and dining experience, should have an irrepressible joie de vivre, and should be ready to follow a culinary adventure wherever it may lead.

(Although I will point out that one of my favorite sidekicks, childhood pal Gary who now lives in Portland, once winced as I dragged him toward a particularly grimy-looking roadside stand in Mexico where I discovered the best fish tacos I’ve ever tasted. “I’m not eating there,” he grumbled.)

It’s easier to find culinary sidekicks than it is to find a good-quality Indian tracker sidekick or a life-of-crime sidekick. Just about everyone wants to be a culinary sidekick. And the job requirements are fairly easy: Must have sense of humor; must enjoy trying new things; must not be gluten-free or vegan or lactose-intolerant or of otherwise delicate constitution; must be able to have a drink in the morning, if asked.

Patas negras under the bridge, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Patas negras under the bridge, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

A culinary sidekick anecdote: I was in Mexico once with one of my favorite sidekicks, pal Don Schneider. “We need to find patas negras,” he said emphatically as we stormed into old town Puerto Vallarta, stopping only briefly for a roadside al pastor taco en route. He had been talking of little else than these mythic black clams for days. It being a warm day out, he suggested we grab a couple Modelo beers to keep us cool while we walked. Then, as we strolled along the waterfront malecon, he stopped suddenly — as if sensing something I couldn’t, or perhaps picking up a scent on the wind.

“This way,” he said, leading me down an embankment and under a bridge, where there sat a very jovial-looking couple and a table piled to the sky with oysters and black clams.

These are the qualities I seek in a Skinny Girls & Mayonnaise sidekick. No application necessary — just grab your favorite bottle, pick up some cheese or charcuterie, a few tacos or some fresh sushi fish, and come on over for your interview.

Tacotopia, Episode #2: The Taco Takes Texas

Though Texas is, like California, a border state, I don’t really associate it with tacos. Sizzlin’ pans of fajita chicken with bell peppers, yes — but not so much the humble and extraordinary taco.

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Last April, I made a Texas smoked brisket for my daughter Willa’s ninth birthday party. No, she did not ask for a brisket — I just thought it was a good idea. What little girl doesn’t dream of smoked brisket for her birthday?

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Jon, Redeemed

Long-time readers may recall with a chuckle posts from the past about our pal, Jon — who, it always seemed, had ten thumbs when it came to cooking.

Or perhaps rather, it might’ve been a convergence of confusion and disinterest when it came to matters of the kitchen, as he made periodic attempts to host us for under-prepared dinner parties, or arrived triumphantly at a friend’s dinner party with a huge slow cooker full of his famous Jack Daniels-and-Coke sausages. (Recipe, in Jon’s words: “Jack Daniels, can of Coke, polka kielbasa. Cook the shit out of it.”)

Presenting dinner by Jon

Presenting dinner by Jon

We love Jon. So it is always with a bit of culinary trepidation but joy in our hearts that we accept a dinner invitation, as we did the other night. I typically offer to bring something, hoping he’ll ask me to bring the entire dinner (as he sometimes does). But this time he was firm: “Don’t bring anything.”

I obliged… mostly. (Preferring to not take chances on the beverage front, I did bring a bottle of wine.)

Jon would be serving tacos. In the past at Jon’s, we have had pizza and hamburgers, and he has often sought my help: “What do we need to do to make this taste good?” That would not be the case this particular evening. Jon opened the door and welcomed us with a heretofore unseen confidence.

For appetizers, there was cheese and crackers — the former, deftly sliced and fanned across the plate; the latter de-boxed with an almost theatrical flair.

“Can I get you a taco, Seanie?” he asked. I nodded enthusiastically, excited to watch his next move.

The taco

The taco

And then he presented it: a perfectly executed gringo American taco. The store-bought taco shells were crunchy, yet yielded just enough to the bite, revealing a layered interior of toothsome, authoritatively spiced ground beef, chewy and briny grated cheese, gossamer cubes of red tomato and the cooling crunch chiffonaded (i.e. chopped) iceberg lettuce. And, presciently avoiding another typical pitfall of the gringo American taco dinner, Jon provided plenty of everything — since there were thirteen of us, and you can’t eat just one of those tacos… nor two… nor three.

I could almost hear the collective cheer rising from Jon’s East Coast family, who had gotten used to reading about his foibles and missteps on this very blog. Jon was triumphant, having redeemed the family name and his own culinary dignity.

We looked forward to future dinners at Jon’s. What would he pull out of his chef’s hat next? Spaghetti and meatballs? Stir fry? Soup!??

Jon’s recipe: “Get some boxes of taco shells and a package of taco seasoning. Make the ground beef. Scoop some beef into the taco shell, top with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. And some onions and guacamole if you like.”

Consider the gauntlet thrown down — especially you East Coast Bucks!

 

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