Thursday, February 8, 2007

Game for the Big Game

What to do for the Superbowl? I like to cook food for people, but cooking for a crowd can be a little overwhelming. And sometimes you have to compromise on quality in order to make it work. This year, I actually wanted to watch the game, and I have a tradition of serving food at halftime, having underestimated the time necessary to get everything ready.

Since we live in Chicago, and one of my roommates is from Indiana and is a huge Colts fan, I wanted to push up the food quality a bit and spend some extra time on making some good food. But I like traditional Superbowl food. Wings, chili, various chips and dips, mini-burgers, taco pie, things of that nature. I have a beef chili recipe that I like quite a bit. It's from a basic slow-cooker recipe in Cook's Country magazine, made with chunks of beef chuck, not ground meat. I change things around and try different things when I make it, but it's a solid recipe. Plus, it doesn't have beans. I don't think beans really belong in chili. Possibly because I don't like beans, but there are historical reasons behind it, too. Anyway.

OK, lets make chili. With beef. Well, there are other meats out there, right? Maybe I should do a beef, lamb, and pork chili based on the same recipe. I've done it before. It's pretty good. But why stop there? This is Chicago. I should be able to get some good meats, right? So I decided to look for a source where I could get venison, boar, and bison. I also checked with my party guests to make sure everyone was willing to contribute about $15 to the event. They all said yes. I posted a query to the great LTH forum folks, and came up with some helpful replies. I called Chicago Game and spoke to a very nice woman there. It's a great business, but there's no storefront. They mainly sell to restaurants, so you have to be willing to buy large pieces of cryovac'd frozen meat. But they have a large variety, and are happy to sell to the public as long you're willing to buy the correct quantities. During our conversation, she helped me to realize that bison isn't practical, because the smallest roast I could get would be like 30 pounds. It turns out the bison is a big animal.
I ended up ordering a 5 pound boar shoulder, and a 20 pound "Denver leg" of venison. This is where they take a venison leg, remove each whole muscle, and clean them up of silverskin and other non-meat matter. I'd use half of the vension for the chili, and keep the other half in the freezer for grilling later on.

I also decided to get some beef stew meat from Costco, to make a pot of beef only chili, so we could compare and decide if the expense of the game meats was worth it.

Cut to the Saturday before the game. I need to cut and brown all of the meat, approximately 20 pounds worth. Well, actually, the beef is all cut. So I cut and clean up the boar first (sorry for the slightly blurry picture):

There was a LOT of fat going through it. No big chunks, but a lot of it. Before eating it, I would have said it was a little fatty. After eating it, I would say it was nicely marbled. I started browning the boar, and then started unwrapping the venison. I took a picture of one piece of it sitting next to a pile of the cubes. It was absolutely beautiful. No fat whatsoever, and a perfect deep red color.

Here's a shot of the meat browning. On the left is boar, on the right is venison.

After one batch of venison, Kevin, Joe, Mina, and I each tried a piece, brown on the outside, medium on the inside. We all agreed it was pretty good. They were up helping clean up after the party the night before, and keeping me company. Yes, I felt a little bad about putting this venison into the chili. It really should have been grilled or roasted, and kept away from a stewing process. Such is life. The patrons were promised game chili.

The browning took quite awhile. After each pan of meat was done, I would deglaze with a cup or so of Goose Island Honker's ale, in the keg that was leftover from a party the night before. I added the beer / fond goodness to the browned meat. Once I finished browning the boar and venison, I moved on to the beef (with some help from Mina). The stew beef from Costco is really nice, but no need for pictures. After the meat was all browned, I packaged it in three bags. One for venison and boar, one for venison and beef, and a third for just beef. I was making three crockpots of chili, so those would be the three varieties. The cutting and browning of the meat had taken about three hours, from 8 am to 11 am on Saturday. I took a break to do a few things, then came back around 4 pm to prepare the rest of the chili ingredients. First, the chili powder.
Usually I used a commercial chili powder for this recipe, but since I had gotten good meat, I took the extra step of making the chili powder. I got pasila, arbol, and ancho dried chiles from the Family Fruit Market, as well as while cumin seed. Next I stemmed and seeded the chiles, and cut them into strips. Then they all got dumped into a dry skillet along with the whole cumin seed. After about 10 minutes, I could smell the chiles and the cumin and they had darkened somewhat. I set them aside to cool, and then spun them in Joe's food processor. I toasted some extra cumin by itself, and ground it in a coffee grinder I keep just for spices. Into the chile and cumin mixture, I added garlic powder and oregano, and spun it again. This would be my chili powder.

The next step in this recipe builds a lot of flavor and adds richness and thickness to the chili. I blistered 18 small fresh corn tortillas under the broiler (six for each pot of chili). Then I tore them up and microwaved them with chicken broth to form a mush of sorts. Spin that in the food processor, then add canned diced tomatoes and some canned chipotles. Spin it all together.

After that, it's time for the aromatics. The yellow onions I got from Family Fruit Market were HUGE, so I only used one per chili pot. I diced and sweated the onions for about 7 minutes along with 3 diced jalepenos per pot, then added some chili powder and chopped garlic and cooked another 2 minutes, and added a little more cumin. I mixed the tomato/tortilla/broth/chipotle mixture with the onion/jalepeno/garlic/chili powder mixture in 3 separate containers, and put it all in the fridge. The chili was ready for Sunday morning.

Sunday. 8 am. Three crockpots. Three batches of chili. Over eight hours of cooking. Each pot took one bag of meat and one bag of the other stuff. Mix and let it go. Here's what that looked like.

Believe me, the smell was awesome.

No superbowl party would be complete without various chips and dips. One of my roommates claims that Hidden Valley Ranch dip (the $2 powder mixed with sour cream)is the best thing I make. So I made it, along with a number of other dips that I made from scratch. You know, for comparison. Here's the table of chips and dips:

Starting at the front left and moving to the right, the dips are packaged ranch dip, caramelized onion dip, guacamole, salsa, and then hummous is back on the right. The chip components are potato chips, tortilla chips, pita chips, pretzels, and pita bread. I got compliments on all of the dips except the ranch dip, which made me happy.

Time to eat the chili. I was too busy eating and drinking and watching the game to get many pictures of the finished product, but I grabbed one. It's serving number two for this bowl, so it's not exactly the cleanest presentation field.

But you get the idea. The toppings for the chili were merely diced white onion (rinsed under cold water), shredded cheese mix (I didn't want to take the time to shred all of that cheese), and Fritos. It was all very good.

Was the game meat worth it? I was really impressed with the boar. It just melted into this intense porky goodness. I feel like I may have overtrimmed it, actually. It was really nice. The venison was good, you could taste the intensity of it's flavor. It has a much stronger flavor than the beef, and that did come through in the chili, IF you were looking for it. But the venison wasn't falling apart like the beef and the boar. It wasn't tough, but you can see in the pictures. There wasn't much connective tissue to melt away, so they chunks of venison stayed chunks of venison. But still, great flavor. I would probably do game meat chili again for a special occasion, but I think for everyday use, I'll stick with beef, and maybe supplement it with pork shoulder.

I wanted to have some good beverage options, not just cheap beer. I asked over on the LTH forum for some beer and wine ideas to go with spicy game chili. (some of this report is copied from my results post there) They had some great ideas. We had half a keg of Honker's ale, so that was the main beverage, and it went really well with the chili. It helps that there were probably about 15 cups (reduced) of the stuff spread across the three pots of chili . Someone suggested a good strong Bock beer. I got the relatively new Anchor Bock. Not bad, but it didn't actually go well with the chili. I went to Binny's wine store and asked them to help me pair some inexpensive wine with the game chili, suggesting maybe a decent Zinfandel. He thought that Zin would be ok, but pointed me at a rack of California field blends, saying their low tannins and fruitiness would go well with the chili. He suggested two in particular, Rosenblum Cellars 2004 Chateau La Paws, a blend of Carignane, Syrah, Zinfandel and Mourvedre, and one known simply as Ten Mile, a blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Barbera, Malbec, and Carignane. I bought two bottles of each, knowing that the beer would be in high demand, not the wine. I tasted both wines with the chili, and they both went really well. I'm not a wine guy who can describe the bouquet or the nose or detect the spices and fruit that consume my palate, but I can tell you that both wines really highlighted the flavors of the chili. They were both quite different, but both were good. And I can tell you that they are both quite drinkable without the chili present. (I had to kill both bottles later that night). And both were inexpensive. The Ten Mile was 9.99 a bottle, and the Chateau La Paws was like 13.99 or so.

At the end of the night, the Colts had won, but I was feeling pretty good. The food was pretty successful, and thanks to the wonders of the crockpot, I was able to enjoy the game, the food, the drinks, and the people, and not worry about the cooking. I even stayed ahead on the dishes, cleaning up as I went. Thanks to all of the roommates for the help, or at least the encouragement to go ahead with the game chili idea, and thanks to the guests who were willing to chip in so we could have better food and beverages. And if you read this far, good work.

P.S. There was quite a bit leftover. All five of us who live in our house had it for dinner Monday and Tuesday night, and a couple of them had it for lunch those days, too. I think it was all gone by Wednesday night. It was even better tasting each day, but I got a little tired of it. I would have frozen some if it weren't in such demand.

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