Campfire chilli

Another weekend on lockdown, but this time it was with almost summer-like weather. Sun was shining and reportedly 20 degrees, but whatever it was, it was warm enough to be in shorts and t-shirts and spending all day in the garden. And as long as it's warm enough to be outside, its warm enough to cook outside!



To be honest with you, my original plan for campfire chilli was to homeschool the kids a little bit about making campfires, but I soon realised, with the lovely weather, it would be a bit anti-social to have a fire in the garden in the middle of the hottest day of the year so far, so it ended up being over coal briquettes (smoke-less) and we ended up not having any educational how-to-build-a-fire fun (we will have to save that for an evening time) but instead cooking a chilli on the BBQ.



It's been a couple of years since I last entered a chilli cook-off and had the pleasure of cooking chilli outside, so had forgotten how much fun it is cooking chilli outside. It's a very low-maintenance, hands-off affair, that takes a few hours to cook (meaning you have to stand around outside in the sun all afternoon) and fills the air with the most wonderful of smells (and quite different to your standard BBQ smells, so maybe that was quite inconsiderate of the neighbours too!).


The chilli can be made on a BBQ, a campfire, a camping stove or just inside on the hob - you'll be cooking for probably three hours or more, so as long as you have the fuel to last then cook where you like! (BBQ briquettes easily burn that long, mine were still red hot hours later, campfires you can get going and just keep fuelling with logs).

Ingredients

  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • a couple chillis (red/green/jalapeno, as you like) - optional
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 tablespoon tomato puree
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (optional, if you don't have this on your shelf then don't worry about it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder (optional, if you don't have this on your shelf then don't worry about it)
  • 2 teaspoons oregano
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 1 tablespoon chilli powder (when I entered chilli cook-offs, I would blend chilli powders often De Arbol, Mulato and New Mexico Red, but for regular family chilli powder, run of the mill supermarket chilli powder will work fine)
  • 1 tin 400g chopped tomatoes
  • 400ml vegetable stock
  • 1 sheet gelatin (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • Meat: this weekend I used 500g chopped pork shoulder & 70g chopped chorizo - but you can choose the meat as you please. My competition chilli would normally be pre-dominantly beef (short ribs) and some pork (pork cheek, chorizo etc) - but you can use any meat you please, just as long as its suitable for slow cooking - pork shoulder, beef ribs, beef shin, ox cheek, pork cheek etc - or just supermarket generic braising steak type thing.

Method

  1. If cooking outside, get the fire going and nice and hot

  2. In a large pot, add a drizzle of oil and start cooking the onion and carrots until soft and translucent, probably about ten minutes (depending how hot the fire is - it often takes a bit to really get going)

  3. Add the garlic, chillis (if using), pork (e.g. chorizo or bacon) and tomato puree and cook for a further minute

  4. Mix in the spices and oregano and cook a minute longer

  5. Add the main meat you are cooking with and brown in the pan (don't stir it too much to allow it to brown nicely)

  6. Mix the sheet of gelatin (if using) with the 400 ml vegetable stock, stir so it dissolves and then add the liquid to the pot and stir

  7. Allow to come to the boil and reach a rolling simmer (if you are cooking outside, you wont have fine control, but because the liquid essentially braises the meat so the liquid acts as a temperature control)

  8. After an hour or so, add the tomatoes and cider vinegar

  9. Continue to cook, stir occasionally, for another two hours or so. If it gets too thick, then add some more boiling water

  10. When its done, the meat should be tender, and you will probably be able to pull it apart with forks (like pulled pork), which can help create a nice textured chilli, with some pulled meat and some chunks left whole.

  11. Serve with rice, nachos, fajitas or whatever!




Easy weeknight ratatouille

So, still being on lockdown, and with the limitations currently in place, both around availability of online shopping and leaving the house, I decided on the weekend to order a veg box as an alternative (or at least a supplement to) regular supermarket shop deliveries. Included in the box was a big old aubergine, and whilst I did consider smoking it on the bbq, I decided to stick with the usual ratatouille (I had smoked aubergine at Smoke Stak in London once, and it was incredible - the best thing on their menu - and I have plans to try and re-create it one day).





Growing up I ate my fair share of courgettes and aubergines, almost always in the form of ratatouille. My dad would grow courgettes in his greenhouse, and they were prolific in their output. They'd be producing faster than we could eat them, so over the summer we would be inundated with them - and it became traditional that ratatouille would be a side dish with pretty much all BBQs we had (a tradition I am fast adopting myself). It would usually get to the point where my dad would have to freeze courgettes as they weren't being eaten fast enough, and whilst he will probably maintain he kept them in empty ice cream tubs in the freezer for practical reasons, it seems like a cruel trick to play on your kids (if you were to look in his freezer and discover an ice cream tub these days, my guess would be it would be full of frozen chillis, rather than courgettes - but either way, its unlikely going to be ice cream).

So, I called this recipe an easy weeknight version - and thats mostly because its relatively simple and only has a few ingredients, however, as with most my cooking it does want a little time in the oven to bring out its magic. Your active time will be quite short, but time to table a bit longer - if you can steal 30 minutes or so in the middle of the afternoon or even lunchtime so its got time to sit in the oven ahead of dinner, then you'll be grand.

Ingredients

  • 1 aubergine, sliced into discs
  • 1-2 courgettes, sliced (as chunky as you like them)
  • 1 onion (I used red yesterday, but white is fine), finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • dried oregano - about a tablespoon
  • olive oil (quite a few glugs - aubergines really drink this up)
  • tomato puree
  • 1 400 gram tin of chopped tomoatos

Method

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees fan oven (adjusting if not a fan oven, usually you just add 20 degrees)
  1. First of all, we will slice and salt the aubergine - we want to get that done up front as we to let the rest salted. Simply slice the aubergine into discs, lay them out on some kitchen towel and liberally salt them. Editors note:  there is debate around whether this is necessary - it used to be to draw out the bitterness, which has apparently been bred out of aubergines anyway. Another alternative to salting is to pre-cook them in the microwave, but I salt them partly out of nostalgia - my dad salts his aubergines - and partly because its the only seasoning I add to this recipe, and it works well.

  2. Next lets start on the tomato sauce - add some olive oil to a saucepan over a medium heat and add the chopped onions - cook for 5-10 minutes until softened and slightly translucent

  3. Add the chopped garlic and oregano, stir and cook for a further minute - try not to let the garlic brown

  4. Add a tablespoon of tomato puree, stir through and cook for a further minute

  5. Add the chopped tomatoes, stir through and pop it in the oven (you can just continue cooking on the hob if you prefer, but I prefer the quality you get when oven cooked)

  6. In another frying pan (I use my cast iron skillet for this - which does a great job, as long as you get it nice and hot) add some more olive oil, and once its hot cook the courgettes. As long as the pan is hot enough, it should only take a few minutes for them to brown nicely. Once browned and soft, transfer them to a kitchen towel lined plate (this is to remove some of the oil from them).

  7. Next throw in the aubergines - depending on how big the aubergine pieces are, this shouldn't take too long (and if you are using a decent frying pan, it should be really hot by now). You may have to add a couple glugs more olive oil, as aubergines will really absorb that - but thats ok, the additional olive oil helps add to the flavour and richness of the finished dish. Once browned, transition to another lined plate

  8. At this point we will construct the finished dish - you can just slam it altogether if you like, but I go for a layered approach: in an oven dish, layer the aubergines, then courgettes, then top with the tomato sauce - making sure the tomato sauce covers the top of the veg

  9. Reduce the oven temp 10 degrees (so to 150 in a fan oven) and pop the ratatouille in. It's ever so forgiving at this temperature, so cook for at least 40 mins, but if it needs to be in there beyond an hour it wont do it any harm (if you need it to sit in there longer, consider covering it if it starts to brown too much on the top)

  10. Once done, serve with pasta, cous-cous, bread, whatever you like (I have also blitzed in with a hand blender to make veg packed pasta sauce - if you blitz it, kids will likely eat it with pasta and cheese, oblivious that they are eating quite so many vegetables)

Cookie tray bake

Hard to believe that its been almost two years since my last update here, despite having been busy cooking, I don't seem to have found the time. Now we are well and truly on lock-down here in the UK, I am finding a bit more time (not a whole lot more, I should add, given as we have two kids in the house that need entertaining, most of my additional time locked in is quite quickly filled).

One recipe that I have bene playing with is a cookie tray-bake. It's simple, quick and good to do with kids. I was originally playing with the idea of more extravagant versions of this (mini eggs etc in them), but given shop trips are limited, I have kept it simple.



Another good thing about the tray bake approach is you can cut the slices as big or as small as you like, so can easily get child friendly slice sizes (I never manage to make small cookies!).


Ingredients

  • 170 grams unsalted butter
  • 100 grams granulated sugar
  • 160 grams light brown sugar
  • 300 grams flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate soda
  • 200 grams choc chips
  • 1 egg
(Substitutions: as always, feel free to play fast and loose on substitutions - I have recently had an abundance of self-raising flour, so have made the last two batches with that instead of plain flour, with no ill effect. Likewise, I have switched the light brown sugar for dark brown or muscavado - you get a different taste with those, more caramel-treacle-y, which is also nice!)


Method

  1. Cream the butter and sugar - stick it in a free standing mixer and beat - it should visibly look a lighter colour, and will probably take a couple minutes (for real, leave it mixing for a couple minutes, which will probably feel like a long time)

  2. To ensure an even distribution, I often add the baking powder and bicarb at this point and beat further

  3. Add the egg and beat until its smooth and combined

  4. Add the flour and mix slowly until combined, add the chocolate chips and mix further for 30 seconds or so until distributed throughout

  5. Line a tin with baking paper and press the dough into the tin, and put in the fridge to chill. Overnight if you have time, but a couple hours is fine (to be honest, feel free to cook immediately if you want, it won't be the end of the world)

  6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 160 Fan (180 or whatever you adjust your non-fan oven to) and bake for 23-25 minutes, turning 2/3 times throughout.

  7. Take out and leave to cool on a rack (still with the baking paper is the easiest), after 5 mins transfer (still in baking paper) to a chopping board and cut into slices as your prefer. Serve immediately with ice cream.

Since the last time: The fourth best chilli in the UK

Can't believe the last post was a whole year ago. It's not that I haven't been cooking, probably just lack of time I expect. I'm not really sure.

There has been lots of cooking since then - the last post was about the Gower Chilli Cook-Off 2017 - which resulted in a bronze and a place in the UK finals, and this time three weeks ago I was just preparing to compete in the Gower chilli cook off 2018.

Unfortunately, in the middle of the longest heatwave I can remember in recent years, there was one weekend of rain and gale force winds - which resulted in the competition being cancelled. Which was a shame, and rather unfortunately the news of the cancellation didn't come in until after I had purchased around 4 kilos of meat. None the less, the meat got cooked, and it fed 7 adults for two nights, if not entirely impressively.



So to the finals, last September I competed in the UK finals of the Chilli cook off, just missing out on a spot on the podium (and a prize!) taking 4th spot, probably out of about 12 teams. Unbelievably, I was just cleaning out a drawer in the house yesterday, and I found all score cards from last year, and being so sure I had taken photos already I binned them all, only to discover now I don't have them! The scores were more consistent in the final, a similar total to the Gower round, but all 4 came in around 38/39 or so (rather than the two outliers of 31 & 49 from Gower) .

Once again, we did manage to learn some things to take forward though - this time I didn't pre-chop the meat ahead of the competition, which resulted in me being slightly slap dash in trimming the meat under competition deadlines, which meant there were some strap pieces of fat left in there (one judge noted it was a bit chewy in parts, so can only assume they found a stray piece of fat).

Following the cancellation of this year's cook-off, the UKCCA held a draw to select three teams to go through by default, and we were one of the teams pulled from the hat, so as long as its a convenient location and time to attend, we will hopefully still ride again this year.  Although I have decided, based on a theory rather than practice, that my entry will be a "cheeky" chilli - using beef and pork cheek for the meat. Who knows how that will turn out!


Here are some of the highlight reel for the last year..

There's been home made chorizo (failed)



.. cake (mixed results)



.. Spanish sausage (ace)



of course, lots of BBQ (shoulder of lamb, pulled pork, ribs, etc)






and cookies!



The Gower Chili Cook-Off - 2017 - A Retrospective

A few weeks it was the annual Gower Chilli Festival, which of course meant it was the annual Gower Chilli Cook-Off!



Having entered last year for the first time, and come a not-too-shabby 9th out of 12 (not too bad, considering I went in with very little clue as to what I was doing, or what the standard was, so was expecting, but not hoping for, last place), I was looking for an improvement on last years placing - in my head aiming for a move up the rankings to around 5th place.


Lessons learnt (or not) from last year

In my retrospect last year, I noted that a more regular competitor (and professional chef) told me that "mince always wins", so I was going in with the plan to switch to mince, but a last minute (well, the week before) change of heart saw me going once again for my favourite part of the cow - ribs!  As it happens, I think the top three or four competitors were actually not using mince this year, so maybe the old mince bias is not a thing, or maybe it just wasn't mince's year.  I don't think we found anyone else using short-ribs, brisket seemed a popular choice and I think another competitor was using shin, another using goat and another using pork belly.

Despite not switching to mince, as I had said I would in the retrospective last year, I did focus on really making the flavour work over the four hours. And boy was that stressful! When all the ingredients hit the pan at about the one hour mark, so with three hours to reduce, it was pretty runny, so I spent a large part of the next 2 1/2 hours stirring, pacing and fretting about whether it was actually going to reduce like it was supposed to. But it did, it just left it until the final 30 minutes to really thicken up!

Unfortunately, whilst we planned to take heed of the lesson learnt that food prep could start before the official kick off, we failed. Actually worse than last time - last time around we were there and tent setup for the starting gun, but without most of the ingredients, this time we didn't even arrive on site until starting time and whilst the other competitors were starting to cook we were trying to setup table, cooker and gazebo!


Things to improve

I was happy with the consistency and the savoury element of the chilli, and the judges seemed to like that balance - but as my dad pointed out, it lacked a salt and sweetness - it was very meaty, just didn't have the all round brightness.  I did forget to add the sugar at the end, and also forgot to add the lime - which might have brightened it a little and made it a little better balanced.  One idea that I have had since is to add tomato ketchup: being packed with both sugar and salt and has quite a sharp taste, if I can work out a subtle enough quantity it might add the missing something.

I also used bacon bits this year, which overall I was happy with, but bacon doesn't really seem right for slow cooking - admittedly, they work fine in a slow braise, and kind of melt away, but I'm going to try switching to pig cheek for the next experiment. As well as being cheaper, it should also provide a closer texture and appearance to the beef.

I will also try to experiment with a different blend of chillies, to see how I can work the flavour a little more.


The results

I came 3rd!

So, a better improvement than I hoped for and meant I took home the bronze cash prize which just about covered the cost of the food! A further nice side-effect of the placing was because the Silver medal winner had already qualified for the UK finals (he is a chilli cook-off circuit pro and had already qualified in another regional cook-off) I took his place, which means 23rd September, I will be competing in the UK finals, which should be fun!

It was a genuine surprise, there were only 9 competitors, and all looked very serious, so on arrival I started revising my targeted place to maybe 6th out of the 9. Whilst tasting the other competitors chillis, we started to be optimistic that "we wouldn't be last place" (a genuine phrase that was said out loud several times in our tent during the final stage - which shows the level of expectation on the team!).  Our confidence was somewhat boosted by the People's Choice voting (during tasting, people can taste and vote for their favourite before winners announced) as we seemed to be getting at least a reasonable number of votes (last year I had one vote, which was by us), but was still in genuine shock when the results were announced!


As per last year, here are the feedback cards (one of the official UK Chilli Cook-off Association judges explained that two of the judges on the panel judged all events, whilst the other two were locals - which I assume was his attempt to explain the two extreme outliers in the scoring)







Birthday Cakes

It's that time of year again when I get a chance to make fun birthday cakes. I don't bake that much, and rarely cakes other than birthdays, and kids cakes are the most fun and least fun at the same time (I haven't really got the knack for rolling icing, so that is always testing).

Anyway, here are the end results:





A Gruffalo cake and a lego superman cake, if you couldn't tell.

BBQ Beef - a retrospect

Well, it's that time of year again, we have had a run of dry weather so time to get a BBQing!

A little earlier than last two years this time, as my first official BBQ of the year was 9th April, and its been good to get back on it.

It's actually been a busy old time cooking, as usual, but not much new to update here, so this is really just a recap of what I have been up to.



The BBQs have both mainly been beef short ribs, as they are really my favourite bbq, both times combined with baby back ribs. The baby back ribs have been cooked well both times, but the rub on the second outing wasn't quite as good so I didn't enjoy them as much. The first beef ribs were individuals and came out really well, but the second attempt of doing a full rack of ribs didn't come out as well, and were a little over cooked - second outing I upped the temperature to 275F, as I had read several people cooking at a higher temperature with no real difference in the results, but in the end, the outer section of the ribs were a bit tougher and over cooked, which is a shame.

Pork belly burnt ends:


The first BBQ of the year:



I have also been busy baking sweet things, including home made bourbon creams, easter inspired brownies and passion fruit sponge cake..