Musings on Making Bread and Chili, No. 1

Recent breadLongtime readers here know that before my surgery last summer, along with my pasta making I was an avid, if not always entirely competent, baker. I mostly made bread from “scratch” but sometimes for convenience used an electric bread maker. I made all sorts of bread in previous years, including soda (“quick”) breads, as well as the occasional scone, tea biscuit, and muffin.

I’ve always looked upon my baking (and cooking in general) as a sort of living chemistry experiment. I play with recipes, tweak them, explore different ingredients and processes. I have produced some spectacular loaves, a lot of adequate loaves, and a few bricks. I had a lot of fun, and a little bit of frustration, from my baking.*

In fact, I enjoy cooking in general because it is a creative art. Not that I’m an artist, but I have a reasonable level of competence in the kitchen, I’m willing to try new ideas and recipes, I enjoy experimenting with foods, flavours, textures, and developing my own recipes.

Most recent loafWell, I’m getting back into baking after all this time. My first loaf was in the bread machine: a “French bread” recipe tweaked as is my wont to make it more interesting. In this case, I added roughly two tablespoons of Fiorfiore’s “dry sourdough” mixture (purchased locally at Walmart) to the dry ingredients, plus a tablespoon of molasses (for colour and sweetness because I reduced the amount of sugar in the recipe), and substituted 1/2 cup of AP flour for whole wheat.  And I substituted a bit of 1% milk instead of the called-for water.

Overall, the result was good. Tall, nicely chewy crust, solid crumb. And the latter was important. Plus it tasted good. I think the addition of the sourdough mix really helped.

Chili ready to cookI like to use the bread machine for loaves that will complement some specific dishes, like my slow-cooker chili or my butternut squash soup. Or just beans-on-toast (a lunchtime favourite). I find machine bread is denser than oven-baked (unless the latter fails to rise), which works well when paired with stews, soups, beans, and chili. It also works well with fondues; a dish we like to have in winters like this.

Bread machine loaves tend to toast well, too, but cannot be sliced too thick because their density prevents the interior of thick slices from fully toasting.

I am not sure how well the gluten develops in machine loaves, but the crumb often seems fragile and easily crumbles (especially when dipped in chili). I personally doubt the machine’s paddles do an adequate job of kneading compared to the human touch. I really wish there were other options on the machine that allowed me to take the dough out and knead it manually, or to put a kneaded dough in and start the baking.

The main drawbacks with bread machines are in both taste and texture. Because you use so much yeast to get the bread rising in a short time, it can taste somewhat yeasty or with a chemical tang. Not unpleasant, but noticeable because the yeast doesn’t really have the time to process the starches and sugars in the flour. The yeast in a slow-rise bread has the time and thus flavours bread quite differently. Sourdough even more so.

The texture of machine-made bread tends to be dense, and somewhat bland, without the variation and air pockets you get from homemade bread. The crust may be somewhat chewy, but never has the crispness of a homemade loaf. This isn’t bad, and works well with some dishes, but can be rather dull at times. In my machine, the standard 2lb loaf setting makes a loaf somewhat too tall for a slice to fit fully in a toaster.

I use several different beans in my chili, although red kidney beans are the focus and provide much of the basic flavour. I like to add chickpeas, pinto beans, black beans, and sometimes lentils. I often drain a can of “six-bean-mix” to add to the kidney beans. I usually use canned beans, because I seldom have the time to soak and cook dried beans. I’ve used both and find little discernible difference in flavour, but found canned beans tend to be softer than dried when cooked. The best way I’ve found to use dried beans is to soak them first overnight, then cook them in a pressure cooker like an Instapot.

I have read that a mixture of two parts corn to one part beans provides almost the same amount of protein in fresh milk. However, I tend to go with a lower ratio of corn because it can overwhelm the dish easily. I add other vegetables to provide vitamins and minerals missing in beans and corn and to give the dish a robust flavour.

Chili is a dish I love to make because I can build the flavour with a lot of mixed ingredients, including many herbs and spices (chili powder being but one). Some of the herbs and spices used in curry can be used in chili. I added some dried fenugreek this time, in part because I ran out of dried cilantro (fresh is always best, of course, but is not always available locally at the same time I’m cooking).

Traditional chili has (or should have) corn because corn and beans form a complete protein by including the nine necessary amino acids in one dish (most beans lack methionine, but corn provides it). Not to mention the corn adds both a sweetness and a pleasant texture. Rice can be added instead, or with the corn, to complete the amino acid list. So can several seeds like sunflower or sesame. I often throw in some pot barley, which also provides methionine, but only a small amount compared to other sources.

Adding dairy products like yogurt or cheese also balances out the proteins, but I don’t like to put them in chili (might be a side dish, though). Animal proteins like eggs are complete in themselves, too, but again I seldom add them to chili. 

For me, texture in food is important, so chili should have a variety of textures to please the eater. Since I cook it for several hours in a crockpot, all the various ingredients tend to soften, but some retain enough of their textures to provide a variation in the meal (chickpeas and some other beans, celery, carrot for example).

Another thing I’ve tried is to roast, grill, fry, or bake some of the vegetables before adding them to the pot. If done carefully, this caramelizes the sugars in them, which adds a distinctly different flavour than just simmering. I do this with my soups as well. For chili I usually set the crockpot to high for an hour, then turn it down to warm for three-four hours, then to simmer until we’re ready to eat (another hour or two). 

I often add wine to my cooking; red wine in chili, of course. The alcohol dissolves fats more easily than water, so creates another flavour profile. As well, it adds its own flavour to the mix. I use whatever wine we’re drinking, and never buy cheap wine specifically for cooking.

As far as I am concerned, chili is a traditional bean dish. I’ve read that it has roots among First Nations people in the southwest, and Mexicans. It was influenced by immigrants to Mexico (including some from the Canary Islands who brought their own spice mixtures) and by Texans who took to it in the 19th century and later made it their state dish. It can have other ingredients, of course, but unless it has beans, it isn’t chili.

Chili is often associated with hot chili peppers, in part because they are associated with a lot of other Mexican dishes (hot and other peppers have been cultivated in Mexico and Latin America since between 5000 and 7000 BCE, and were later spread around the world by Spanish and Portuguese sailors). I like my chili hot, but it doesn’t have to be; season it to taste.

Chili con carne, on the other hand, is really an American dish that was first written about in Texas back in 1828. We don’t eat mammals or other sentient creatures in our house, but we do cook with chicken and fish at times. I’ve made chili with both leftover chicken and turkey, but still prefer tofu which blends seamlessly into the dish without creating its own flavour profile (plus it adds a healthy amount of protein, calcium, and iron).

I don’t buy the revisionist American histories (mostly Texan from what I’ve read) that push the dish as an all-meat-no-beans recipe. If it doesn’t have beans, it is merely liquified hamburger, and that doesn’t deserve the name chili. The debate should not be whether to add beans, but whether to add meat to the dish. The beans are the essential component; everything else is icing.

But, like pizza, the dish has grown outside its origins, and taken on its own life in places that share no cultural or linguistic connections to its source. Arguing against meat in chili is about as pointless as arguing against pineapple on pizza: people will add to their meals whatever they feel like eating. As long as there are beans, it can be considered chili.

(But don’t take it personally if you’re Texan. I also like pineapple on pizza and my breakfast cereals without any added sugar. As my favourite philosophic author, Michel de Montaigne, wrote, “Que sçay-je?” or “What do I know?” Food is very personal and you can chalk it up to my own taste in meals and food.)

Our crockpot holds enough chili for us to serve three nights. That’s enough to generate many Mel-Brooks-Blazing-Saddles-fart jokes here. But we like the meals, accompanied by homemade bread, and maybe a side dish of marinated artichokes (for Susan) and olives (for me). Every day the ingredients marinate a little more and the dish becomes richer in flavour. By the last meal it is delightfully complex, although the once-firmer vegetables succumb to the incessant siren call of the liquids and become mushier each day.

~~~~~

I nurtured a sourdough starter for several years, too, and went through the highs and lows with it as I made my own sourdough bread. I decided to dispose of it before I went for surgery. It was too much to look after while I recovered, and I didn’t want to burden Susan with the sometimes meticulous process of feeding it. I figured I could start a new one once I was capable of taking care of it properly. I will do so this summer when the weather and humidity help it to get growing. I think I’ll also explore this Firofiore sourdough powder more, too.

 

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