Seasonal Cooking 22 Jul 2009 07:52 am
Last weekend I finally succumbed to the cook-off mania currently sweeping the kitchens of Brooklyn. The event: the Forth Annual Hot Dog Cook Off, a benefit for City Harvest. It was held at Kelso Brewery, having outgrown last year’s home, the leafy backyard behind the Fort Greene apartment of Kara Masi, organizer of the cook-off and proprietor of the occasional restaurant Ted & Amy’s Supper Club. All 200 tickets to the events were sold out. To feed this crowd (assuming some of them would be vegetarians) I’d have to prepare 60-some-odd hotddogs, top, dress, slice and arrange them for serving, with only a 30-minute allotment of grill time. This was going push my everyday home cook’s skills to their edges. I’d have to think a little bit like a restaurant chef. I’d need to make a lot of food and make it quickly. It would need to look great and taste fantastic. I’d need to do a couple of test runs. This would take some planning.
First though, I needed to think up a recipe. In my hometown in Indiana there’s a hot dog stand (called, interestingly enough, “Coney Island”). Their specialty is a sort of chili dog, and chili they use is brothy, thin enough to soak down around the dog and into the bun. I wanted to make a chili dog that did that. But my chili would need to go beyond the ordinary. I’d have only one or two bites to make an impression, to stand out from the pack of franks and convince audience members and judges alike to vote for my dog. My chili would need to deliver a big burst of full, satisfying flavor. It would need to stop the audience members in their tracks, make them roll up their eyes slightly, and with mouths still full of chili dog say “MMMmm.” It would need lots of pork.
Specifically, I wanted to make a chili from slow-cooked, falling-off-the-bone pork, and with the broth that the pork had cooked in. I looked at recipes in which a less expensive cut of pork, like a shoulder, is cooked for a long time in liquid. In cookbooks by Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy I found variations on something called “tinga,” a spicy, chunky, stew from Mexico’s Puebla region. A real tinga contains a mix of potatoes, carrots, what have you (‘tinga’ loosly translates as “a mess”), might be made from chicken or pork, and would be served on tostadas. I left the extra chunk out of mine though, and placed the pork (which I’d rubbed the night before with a paste of garlic, salt, and dried Mexican oregano) into a slow-cooker with a can of whole tomatoes (liquid included), some chopped canned chipotle peppers along with some of the accompanying adobo sauce, and a sliced onion. I let this cook for about six hours and then let the meat cool in the broth for another hour or two. I removed the shoulder to a plate (once it was fully cool I shredded it with my fingers), and skimmed the extra fat off of the top of the cooking liquid.
Now finally I was ready to make my spicy chili broth. I heated a little annatto oil in a large pot and added chorizo, crumbling it with my fingers as I dropped it into the hot pan and chopping it up further with the edge of a spoon as it fried. Once the chorizo was fully cooked, I scooped it out with a slotted spoon, leaving in the pan the spicy red fat it had rendered. Into this I tossed a coarsely chopped onion. Once the onion was translucent I added more canned tomatoes (squeezing them one at a time in my fingers to break them up as I added them) and another chopped chipotle to two. When this had simmered long enough that the tomatoes were beginning to break down further, I added the de-greased juices from the pork shoulder,a bit of salt , enough hot stock to bring the liquid to the level I wanted, and a little beer to offset the flavor. Once this had cooked down a little, I ran through it with a stick blender to smooth it out. Finally, I returned the chorizo to the pan, and stirred in the shredded pork shoulder. The chili was done.
But I wanted another layer on top of the chili dog, something with an equally potent punch of flavor: roasted poblano peppers. I’d used them a year ago in a carne asada recipe I’d made for a backyard taco party, and I loved their pungent smoky flavor. In a test batch I mixed them with some minced roasted scallions, as I’d done for the carne asada; but the mixture that resulted was dark in both color and flavor. That’s not a problem for a taco filling hiding inside a tortilla, but it didn’t have the bright contrast I wanted against my rich, smoky chili. I had the same problem with avocados: it would be impossible, I feared, to keep them from dulling while I prepared 180 samples. I noticed, though, that the season’s first sweet corn was appearing in the farmer’s markets, and then my salsa took shape: bright, fresh corn kernels, mixed with freshly minced raw onion, and flavored with cilantro, lime juice, and salt. The smokiness of the poblanos would tie it to the chili; but the brightness of the corn and of the lime juice, the freshness and pop of the raw onion, would provide contrast. The Perro Poblano was born.
Now my recipe was more or less in place, but I’d need to execute it for a hungry crowd of 200 hot dog lovers. On Friday, the day before the cook off, I made a big batch of my chipotle – pork shoulder chili (I splurged on a 4-lb bone-in shoulder from Marlow and Daughters), and grilled 27 poblano peppers and 16 ears of corn. That evening, with plenty of help from Karol Lu (who submitted the delicious and original “American Hot Dog in Paris” to the competition), I peeled and seeded the peppers until I had a stack of fragrant, juicy poblano fillets big enough to tightly pack a quart-sized ziplock bag (and to leave Karol’s and my hands tingling painfully!)
On Saturday morning, I finely chopped the poblanos and cut the roasted corn kernels from the cobs. I also chopped three bunches of cilantro, minced two medium-sized white onions, and squeezed about a dozen limes. I packed up all these ingredients separately; I wanted to mix my salsa at the last minute to keep the flavors as bright and fresh as possible.
At the cookoff, just before grilltime, I mixed the peppers and corn, then added cilantro, lime juice and salt to taste. I poured the chili into an aluminum pan placed on the grill and stirred to heat it through. I grabbed a knife, sliced open the first pack of dogs (Nathan’s All Beef Franks) and started to grill. My friends Tim and Allison, surely not knowing what they were in for, asked just at that moment if I needed help. Boy did I put them to work: Allison toasted the buns on the hot grill and Tim sliced the chili-sauced, salsa-topped dogs into thirds and arranged them on a serving tray. In between, I grabbed buns in one hand and dogs in the other, slapped dog into bun and spooned on chili, then topped it off with the smoky, tangy salsa. As the bell rang to end my grill time I’d stuffed the last bun. The work was done.
In the end I didn’t win any of the prizes, though it’s rumored I came close and the Perros Poblanos got lots of compliments. It was, after all, my first cookoff, and as I told my friends beforehand, I wasn’t in to win but just to pull off a great-tasting chili dog. I really don’t care that I didn’t win. Really I don’t. Really!