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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Boozy Bluegrass Chili

Everybody loves chili. Whether filled with ground beef and beans (sacrilege in some parts), strictly vegetarian or vegan, lightened up with chicken, or loaded with long braised meats, a hearty bowl of chili hits the spot when cooler weather slowly sets in. For some folks, there are hard and fast rules for chili based on history and tradition. I get it. That said, I'm a rule breaker.

With all due respect to the iconic Bowls of Red from Texas, the pasta-based Cincinnati 2-3-4-5-Ways, or the fresh green chile stews of New Mexico, there's still room in the chili world for other regional riffs on chili. Spiked with Kentucky bourbon, filled with local vegetables, packed with local grass-fed beef, and kicked-up with dried chile peppers, boozy Bluegrass chili might give the big boys a run for their money.

I've done my share of cooking with bourbon. Heading up the Culinary Art: Bourbon-Style Cooking School (four bourbon-infused courses prepared and demoed for hundreds of people) at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for a couple of years gave me lots of time to play with bourbon and food. The pairing is fantastic. Whether applied in sweet or savory preparations, the inherent undertones of smoke, vanilla, caramel, honey, and oaky spice  can lace food with complex layers of flavor. Yep. All of that.'s just downright fun.

Stand down, chili police.

Bluegrass Bourbon Chili.
Braised chili takes time. While there's nothing really complicated about the process, a little organization and mise en place goes a long way before kicking back with a shot of bourbon and letting the chili cook itself.

The building blocks.
After toasting 3 dried Ancho chile peppers, 2 dried Guajilla chile peppers, and 1 dried
Pasilla chile pepper in a dry cast iron skillet, I scooped them into bowl, poured 2 cups boiling water over the peppers, and set them aside for 30 minutes to soften. When the peppers were pliable, I pulled off the stems, removed the seeds, and dropped them into a blender. I strained any seed stragglers from the soaking liquid, poured the liquid into the blender, added 1 cup Makers Mark Bourbon, blitzed the peppers into a fine puree, strained the puree into a bowl, and set it aside.

While any good quality canned tomatoes would have been great, I took advantage of our late season farmers market tomatoes. I peeled 1 1/2 pounds Pulaski County Yellow Giant, red Mule Team, and purple Cherokee heirloom tomatoes. Because there were so few seeds to fret over, I simply chopped the tomatoes into large chunks, tumbled them (with juices) into the pepper stained blender, pureed them until they were velvety smooth, and set them aside.

Fresh peppers and the other stuff.
Smitten with the gorgeous array of Casey County market peppers, I went on pepper overdrive. I seeded and diced 1 yellow bell pepper, 1 red bell pepper, 1 green bell pepper, 2 red sweet banana peppers, I hot banana pepper, and 3 green chili peppers. After chopping 2 medium sized Lincoln County candy onions into a large dice, I tossed them into the pepper pile before peeling, seeding, and dicing a smallish Casey County butternut squash.

Where's the beef?
Booya. Marksbury Farm grass-fed shoulder chuck roast. After slicing the 2 pound roast into 1 1/2" cubes, I dusted the meat with ground ancho powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, salt, pepper, and flour. I gave the pieces of meat a quick toss and set them aside.

The fun part.
After cranking a flame to medium high under a 3 quart dutch oven, I drizzled the pot with vegetable oil, browned the meat in batches, and removed the pieces to a side plate before tumbling the fresh peppers and onions into the sizzling oil. As the vegetables started to sweat, I added 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 tablespoons cumin, 2 tablespoons ground ancho, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, salt, and cracked black pepper. When the tomato paste caramelized around the sauteed vegetables, I carefully deglazed the pot with 1/2 cup Makers Mark bourbon, let the bourbon reduce by half, scraped up the fabulous sticky bits, and poured the spiked pepper puree into the incredibly hot pot. Boom. Splash dance. As the splattering molten puree calmed to a gentle ripple, I added 2 cups of the reserved fresh tomato puree, 2 tablespoons Oberholtzer's Organic Sorghum, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar,1 cup beef stock, and 2 cups chicken stock. I brought the liquid to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, tumbled the meat (with their juices) back into the pot, covered the chili, and slid it into a 350 degree oven.

After 2 1/2 hours, I added the cubed butternut squash and a bit more stock to loosen the chili before returning it to the oven for another hour. During the last 15 minutes, I mixed 2 tablespoons Weisenberger white corn meal with 4 tablespoons of the hot chili broth and swirled it into the chili as a slight thickener.

After pulling the chili from the oven, I splashed it with a shot of bourbon and let it rest for a few minutes before finishing with fresh parsley, slivered scallions, and sliced Casey County jalapenos.

Broken down by the long cook, the tender meat simply melted into the chili. Tempered by the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and butternut squash, the bourbon added subtle caramel notes that played nice with the soft smoky sweetness of the sorghum and the tingly creeping heat of the dried chiles. While the scallions and parsley brought fresh onion grassiness to the party, the sliced jalapenos provided biting fiery crunch.

Bluegrass Bourbon Chili.
Game day.
Fun Day.
Any Day.

Kick back and give it a shot.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Classically, timbales are sweet or savory custards baked in drum-shaped molds. With savory versions, creamy minced meat, fish, or vegetables are folded into timbale molds and baked before being turned out for presentation. Nowadays, almost anything packed into a drum mold can be tagged as a loosey-goosey interpretation of a timbale. Most folks might be more familiar with the iconic molded pasta/meatball/salami/mozzarella/sauce-filled Italian timbale (timpano) triumph from the movie 'Big Night". A brazen beauty. That said, not all timbales have to be dramatic over-the-top centerpieces large enough to feed a crowd. They can also be dialed back for more intimate affairs. Drum roll.  Size doesn't matter.

Spaghetti Squash Timbales with Arugula-Lemon Basil Pesto

As our farmers markets segue from summer into fall, varieties of winter squash are quietly nudging out the darlings of summer. I'm not quite ready to completely let go of those darlings, so I took the middle road with a gorgeous Casey County spaghetti squash and a few handfuls of Pulaski County chocolate cherry tomatoes. Balance.

I tumbled 1 cup baby arugula, 1 cup lemon basil, 2 cloves garlic, salt, pepper, lemon zest, and 1/3 cup toasted pecans into the bowl of a food processor. After processing the mix until it was finely minced, I slowly drizzled in 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (with the motor running). When the mixture was smooth, I added 1/2 cup grated parmigano-reggiano, gave it a few quick pulses to blend in the cheese, scraped the pesto into a small bowl, covered the top with plastic wrap, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.

I adore spaghetti squash. When cooked, it shreds into delicate, almost translucent, pasta-like threads. Typically, I halve the squash, remove the seeds, and roast it cut side down in a 350 degree oven until it's incredible tender and a wee bit caramelized. For a change, I wanted to avoid any toasted sugary caramelized bits, so I bellied up to the microwave. Using a heavy sharp knife, I split the squash in half, scraped out the seeds, placed both halves on a microwavable dish, added 1/2 cup water to help it steam, covered the squash with plastic wrap, and microwaved the squash on high for 20 minutes. After carefully removing the squash from the microwave, I removed the plastic wrap and let it rest.  When it was cool enough to handle, I used the tines of a fork to gently pull the strands from the body of the shell and tossed them into a bowl to cool.

I didn't want to kill the squash with a heavy sauce, so I threw together a small batch bechamel as a binder. After melting 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in a small sauce pan, I added 1 tablespoon flour, salt, pepper, and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. When the roux started to bubble, I drizzled a 1/2 cup warmed milk into the pan, whisked the sauce until it napped the back of a spoon, and pulled it from the heat to cool.

After buttering 5 4oz. ramekins, I placed buttered parchment paper on the bottom of each ramekin before dusting the ramekins with a mixture of finely grated parmigiano-reggiano and toasted bread crumbs.

I tossed the spaghetti squash with 1 cup of the arugula-lemon basil pesto and the reserved bechamel. After twirling the creamy pesto faux pasta into the individual ramekins, I added a bit more cheese for good measure, gently tamped the squash into the molds, slid the timbales into a 350 degree oven, and let them rip for 50 minutes before pulling them from the oven to rest.

While the timbales were still somewhat warm, I ran a knife around the edges of the ramekins to release the squash and turned them out onto plated puddles of pesto. After dabbing the tops with a tad more pesto, I finished with halved/quartered chocolate cherry tomatoes and fresh lemon basil leaves.

Tucked inside the crisped outer shells of each timbale, the delicate wisps of spaghetti squash snapped through the creamy bechamel, hints of garlic, and the nutty parmigiano-reggiano undertones of the peppery arugula pesto. While the perky basil added bright lemony freshness, the tomatoes provided sultry popping wet sweetness.

The middle road.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Fried eggplant parmesan can be a fabulous thing. Unfortunately, more often than not, most versions usually end up over-sauced and cheese laden. By the time they bake off in the oven and absorb all of the other ingredients, they resemble swollen cheese-packed tomatoey eggplant sponge cakes. Over wrought and heavy handed with the happy crunch factor lost in translation. Trust me, I've hammered my share doing that very thing. Sometimes, less is more.

It's been a great season for eggplants at the farmers market. While some things have suffered from our incredibly wet summer, eggplants are everywhere.

Fried Eggplant.
Redeeming the crunch factor.

Fry it once, use it twice.

After slicing a bulbous Casey County globe eggplant into 1/2' slices, I halved a few slender Jessamine County Asian eggplants and tossed them into a colander with the sliced globes. To leach out some of the bitterness, I salted the eggplant slices and let them drip/drain for 30 minutes before rinsing them under cold water and thoroughly patting them dry. I set up a standard breading station for my eggplant-palooza. Highly seasoned flour (salt, pepper, garlic powder) in one dish, beaten egg wash in a second dish, and parmigiano reggiano-studded panko bread crumbs flecked with minced chives, rosemary, basil, parsley, and thyme in a third dish.

Using the wet hand/dry hand method, I dusted the slices in the flour, dipped them through the egg wash, dredged them in the herbed breadcrumbs, and set them aside.

Simple Eggplant Parmesan.
After bringing 1/2 cup vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a cast iron skillet, I carefully slipped the breaded eggplant slices into the sizzling oil and shallow fried them until  they were golden brown before removing them to a dish towel to drain. I wiped out the skillet, slid the crispy eggplant cutlets back into the skillet, shingled thin slices of fresh mozzarella cheese over each piece of eggplant, nestled Boyle County tomatoes (still on the vine) into the cheese, slid the skillet into a 450 degree
oven to bake for 20 minutes, and finished the deal with a quick spin under the broiler for the last couple of minutes. When the tomatoes started to blister and collapse over the oozing cheese, I pulled the skillet from the oven and let the simple riff on eggplant parmesan settle down before finishing with fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and flaky sea salt.

Although blanketed in the creamy melted mozzarella cheese, the eggplant remained crisp from the high heat of the oven and cast iron skillet. Slippery gooey crunch. Where's the sauce? It took a mere whisper for the incredibly ripe blistered tomatoes to pop open and seep their sweet warm juices over the bubbling cheese, spilling into puddles around the charred edges of the mozzarella and eggplant. While the tomatoes provided just enough subtle sweet acidity to cut through the rich cheese, the basil added hits of freshness. Simple. Fresh. Perfect.

Eggplant Milanese.
As a bright side kick for the eggplant parmesan, I breaded and fried the slender Asian eggplant halves until they were beautifully browned, dabbed them with a dish towel to soak up any excess oil, and topped the tubular slices with fresh baby arugula before finishing with a spritz of fresh meyer lemon juice, lemon slices, salt, coarsely cracked black pepper, and and crisped parmigiano fricos. In true Milanese fashion, the lemons and slightly bitter baby arugula countered the fried earthy meatiness of the eggplant with biting acidic freshness. Light. Bright. Fabulous.

Fried Eggplant.
Two for one.
Embrace the crunch.