It seems funny — at least to me — that I am in the food business for I am not a “foodie,” nor do I enjoy cooking.
I have visited our local pet store far more times over the past 12 months that I have stepped into a supermarket to do an honest hour of shopping. And, when I have shopped for food, it has often been on the request of Chef Phoebe who just happened to need something “on the fly.” She knows how the massive store, with all its brightly-lit aisles, makes me anxious; “Just call me when you get inside, Mandy. I’ll tell you what to get.”
It’s not like I have a mysterious culinary phobia or anything. I just feel completely out of my element, that’s all. I’d far rather be carrying my 20-gauge shotgun, watching my dogs quarter the field and go on point. It’s a comfort zone thing, I guess. Some folks enjoy grocery shopping. I get it. My parents, in fact, always seemed to embrace their Saturday morning ritual of grocery shopping for the week ahead.
I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I have even tried my best to recreate some of my folks’ recipes over the years, and particularly, after my mom passed away at the young age of 44. It was a comforting endeavor to open her blue and white Joy of Cooking cookbook and thumb through the pages looking for those particular recipes that she always penciled little notes in the margins. From her shepherd’s pie with ground lamb, to her stew, I tried most of them in my 20s. I even recreated her famous creamed eggs on toast recipe from time to time.
As I got older, and missing my mom wasn’t a constant, I found myself looking less and less at her old cookbook. It was about that time that my interest in preparing at-home meals really began to wane. And, thank goodness for Chef Phoebe over the years. Even after a busy evening, she always finds the extra effort to make a take-home dinner for me for each night we are closed. In the summer, it’s only one – Mondays. But in the dead of winter, when we are closed for three nights, there has always been a large brown bag of entrees for my refrigerator.
It was two winters ago that I decided that I would return the favor. (Plus, I have to admit that there’s something to be said for wonderful aromas permeating one’s home on an occasion.) My friend, having battled two bouts of cancer, continues to have some minor issues associated with fighting her disease over the past 25 years. In particular, her most recent tongue cancer really affected her sense of taste and can be downright painful, at times, to eat. I’ve seen her try so many things to help her gain a little weight, and thus that little extra energy that is required for her extremely hands-on dance as a chef.
It was a Sunday and I just began to watch the 1 p.m. NFL football game. Snow flurries were spitting from the air, my German wirehaired pointers, Wyeth and Watson (WyNott had yet to appear on the scene), were curled up with me on my couch, content to just hang-out. My cell gave off that phone message bing and there was Phoebe. All she wrote was: “What r u doing?”
It was at that moment, I swear, that it hit me like a brick — I should make Phoebe something special for her dinner. I ran to my kitchen and grabbed mom’s tattered “Joy of Cooking” and started to thumb, once again, through the yellowed pages. I called Phoebe up and told her my plan and that I was going to be creative and concoct my own recipe so she would be proud of me. Her response was classic Phoebe: “Really? That would be great, Mandy.”
I turned off the television, grabbed my dogs’ leashes and got them in the truck. (They literally go everywhere with me.) Off to the grocery store I drove, my handwritten list of what I thought would taste good and I started to shop in earnest. What started out as a hand-held basket chore quickly changed to a pushcart. I was like my parents that afternoon, humming my favorite song, wheeling my cart up one aisle and down the next, crossing off my list as I found my secret ingredients. It was, honestly, a joyful experience for me. I kept telling myself to “keep it light,” that this was fun.
And, you know something? For that one hour, on that one football Sunday, I felt like my mom was pushing my cart with me, with her bare feet and all, in her jean skirt and Peter Pan-collared paisley shirt. I even stopped at the meat counter, like we used to do, and bought a quarter pound of thinly sliced hard salami and nibbled on it.
It was as close I had come to my mom in years. And, I wanted to make it last for as long as I could.
I have never told Phoebe about this experience of mine but I think she kind of knew that something magical happened to me. I delivered a big pot of the chili I had made that evening to her. Before she could try it, I left and drove home. Within short order, my cell rang: “Well done, Mandy. Your mom would be proud, as I am, of you.”
I hung up the phone. I put my mom’s old cotton terry cloth red and white apron back on, filled my bowl with chili, poured a glass of wine and raised it to the heavens, to my mom.
“You were with me today, weren’t you?” I asked.
Mandy Hotchkiss and Phoebe Bright are co-owners of the Blue Paddle Bistro in South Hero.
I use a crock pot, after all the ingredients are prepared/sauteed, and let the chili cook on high for at least 1-½ hours. Yields: 8-10 servings depending upon your appetite.
8-10 slices bacon
2 pounds ground beef
2-3 links sweet sausage
2-3 links spicy sausage
¼ pound Canadian bacon or Black Forest ham
1 green bell pepper, chopped fairly large chunks
1 red yellow bell pepper, chopped fairly large chunks
1 orange or red bell pepper, chopped fairly large chunks
1 Spanish onion, diced fairly large chunks
1 red onion, diced fairly large pieces
2 cups frozen corn
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2- 28-ounce cans whole plum tomatoes, quartered
2- 15-ounce cans black kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Small can of tomato paste
8 ounces amber beer
1-½ tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
½ cup local maple syrup
1-½ cup beef broth
1-½ teaspoon dried oregano, ground in hands
½ tablespoon ground cumin (you may wish to increase this amount if you like your chili spicy)
3 tablespoons chili powder (you may wish up this amount, as well.)
2 tablespoons sugar
Shredded cheddar cheese (for topping)
3-4 tablespoons butter (for browning and sautéing)
Salt and pepper each step to taste
In the crock pot, add your quartered whole plum tomatoes plus one can of the plum tomato juice. (Keep the second can of tomato juice for later use.) Add beef broth, oregano, cumin, chili powder, beer, maple syrup, cocoa, salt and pepper. Let it simmer.
In large skillet, cook bacon and drain on a paper towel. Set aside bacon fat for later use, but leave one tablespoon in the skillet. When bacon is cool, crumble and put in crock pot.
In same skillet, add a tablespoon butter and sauté garlic until light brown; add ground beef, sausage and Canadian bacon or ham and brown until cooked on the outside well. Transfer mixture, with a slotted spoon, to the crock pot.
In same skillet, with the juices, add peppers and onions; sauté until medium hardness. (Chef Phoebe likes her vegetables a little crisp; you may wish to saute a little longer.) Transfer to crock pot.
Drain and rinse the kidney beans and add to crock pot.
In the same skillet, add a tablespoon of the bacon fat (that has been set aside), the tomato paste and ½ cup of the tomato juice that has been set aside. Bring to a boil, reduce and simmer until the mixture becomes thick. Add to the crock pot. Just a note: You can also do this step in the skillet at the same time you’re sautéing the above peppers and onions but we don’t because, again, Chef Phoebe likes her veggies crispier and she doesn’t want them overcooked.
Add sugar and corn to the crock pot, mix well and let cook. Salt and pepper to taste.
Depending upon the consistency, you may always add a little water or beef broth.
Top with grated cheddar cheese. You may also top with homemade croutons, but that’s another recipe for another column.