Friday, December 10, 2010

Backlog blog #4: A special visitor for a special occasion (aka EAT MORE CHILI)

Several years ago, my Seattle friends started a chili cookoff tradition. It has had many iterations, from specific judges to popular judging, from straightforward categories and rules to mind-numbing mathematical messes necessitating an excel spreadsheet to calculate the winner.

This year’s cookoff was held for the first time at Ray and Jen’s house, and when I was talking about it to my buddy Mike, one of the first friends I made when I moved to Philadelphia, he became utterly giddy. “Yo Arch, do you think I could come out there for this chili cookoff?” he asked eagerly. A short time later he had booked his ticket for a long weekend in October and I began laying the groundwork for this year’s chili entry.

After having been a judge and a straight-up interloper for several years, last year I entered for the first time. I chose the vegetarian category and won with ‘Moli,’ a mole-chili combination that I whipped up from scratch – yes, even the mole part – and that one attendee in particular still talks about longingly (Morgan, you know who you are). I had a reputation to uphold, so one weekend about a month in advance I went crazy with three different versions of the same experimental chili idea I had, roasting whole tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants to create a truly 'from scratch' recipe. (The pot on the left is the start of applesauce from the great apple harvest.)

Bubbling away:

It centered around lamb, which was delicious, but the rest of it didn’t really knock my socks off - not surprisingly, eggplant was NOT a winning addition to a chili, though the leftover puree did make a delicious baba ghanouj - so after a night of taste-testing I went back to the drawing board.

The next week, K and I were trying to come up with something to make for our neighbors who just had a baby. As is our wont, we scavenged the fridge, freezer, and pantry, and came up with a wild rice, sage, and squash soup. It tasted like Thanksgiving, a light bulb went off in my head, and the Happy Thanksgiving chili was born.

Fast forward to Mike’s arrival in Seattle. Born and raised in Brooklyn and a longtime resident of Philly, he had never been to the West coast. I had just moved into my apartment less than a week before but was determined to have it ready for my first guest of honor. We packed a lot into the first few days, much of it food-based: I took him to the best bowl of pho at Pho Bac in the ID; to Tacos el Asadero, the taco bus on Rainier; and for a gyro in Pioneer Square. When he mentioned he’d never heard of, much less been on, a floating bridge, we drove across I-90, through Bellevue, and then back across 520.

Mike is part of a running and drinking club called the Hash House Harriers, and he found a Seattle chapter which took him on a grueling run in the rain and the mud through Lincoln park in West Seattle. Before I dropped him off we stopped for the glamour shot with Seattle’s skyline:

Later that night he didn’t realize how lucky he was when some of the runners decided to drive to Capitol hill to sing karaoke at the Crescent - a bar that you can see from my apartment - until he was ready to go the short distance home, at which point he was overcome with relief to get so quickly out of the rain and his wet clothes and onto my super comfy couch.

Mike was on his own that night because it was my 10-year high school reunion. It was over stimulating and underwhelming at the same time, but I’m glad I went on that walk down memory lane. It was great to reconnect with some people, and fascinating to see how some people had changed. Of course, most of us were exactly the same. I think the 20 year will be even more interesting.

The next day was Sunday - Cookoff Day. I had started the chili in the crockpot the day before, so Mike and I went to eat breakfast pizzas and watch football at Bill’s Off Broadway before hitting up the cookoff. He was in awe of how early football here goes down, especially the Monday night game which for us starts at 5:20 and ends by the time it had started on the east coast.

A few hours later we found ourselves in North Seattle, surrounded by crockpots of various size and smell. Ray and Jen did a spectacular job setting up the competition in case of rain, but we were lucky to have the sun shining down most of the afternoon. Here is part of the sweet set-up in the basement, which opened onto the driveway and front lawn:

I think there ended up being 14 chilis across 3 categories, all of which the majority of us were able to work our way through. Here are a few taste-testers eating out of leftover mugs from Ray and Jen’s wedding, the perfect chili vessel!

My personal favorite was a whiskey plantain chili, followed by Nathan and Morgan’s lamb with polenta, followed by my own Happy Thanksgiving which had a few kinks in the beginning that I managed to even out by judging time. The base consisted of roasted and blended pumpkin, tomatoes, turkey gravy, and chili peppers, plus dark turkey meat, hunks of pumpkin, chopped pecans, dried cranberries, and French’s Fried Onions on top. It was Thanksgiving in a mouthful.

I happily came out victorious in the ‘meat no bean’ category. Next year I will have to up the ante by entering ‘meat with bean’ in the hopes of securing a trifecta of wins. Here are this year’s winners:

You can also read about the cookoff and see more pictures on Ray and Jen's blog here.

By the time we went home we were a little fatter and a lot happier. We went to bed with lofty goals for the next day, Mike’s last full day and a Monday I had taken off. But, fate had other plans.

Mike is an early riser and I was secluded in the cave of my bedroom, so by the time I rolled out at 9 am he was nearing his breaking point: WISDOM TOOTH ATTACK! I felt so bad for him but there’s almost nothing you can do for that kind of pain. I started by giving him some pain killers and recommending he call his dentist and insurance provider to get a list of oral surgeons in Philadelphia, since clearly those suckers had to come out. After a few false starts he got the nicest woman in the world on the phone who scheduled him for a consultation the very next day, with the promise of surgery on Thursday. The only problem was, Mike didn’t fly until the next morning. Cue the call to the airline, where we got him on a 12:30 flight that night with a minimal fee since he was technically flying in the same day as his original flight. PHEW! With all of those details ready to go for his return, there was really only one thing left to do: drink the pain away.

Our original plan had been to take the Underground tour, go up in the Smith Tower, Columbia tower, or the Space Needle, and take a ferry ride to Bainbridge and back. We did pretty well after several drinks at the J&M Café in Pioneer Square and I think Mike managed to enjoy the Underground. We hit up the Smith tower where Mike got glamour shot #2 with the Space Needle:

By that time the booze was wearing off and the pain was coming back so we skipped the ferry, choosing instead to go to Tukwila to retrieve Harriet. (I both blame and thank Mike for this random incident in my life, since it all started the first night he came into town with the innocent phrase, “Have you ever seen a Lionhead bunny?” followed by about an hour of obsessive Google imaging and Craigslist searching.)

Once we had Harriet safely tucked away inside her shiny new cage, we meandered over to the Redwood, my friendly neighborhood bar a block away, to watch Monday Night Football. I have never watched so much nor learned so much about football as I did that weekend. Mike also helped me cultivate and refine my fantasy team, and I’m happy to report that I am in first place in my league and going to the playoffs next week. Holla!

Mike got safely on the plane, had his consultation and surgery, and while convalescing crafted this insanely awesome creation as thanks for my hostessing. A straight dude who can crochet is one in a million in my book.

He’s already plotting a return trip for the cookoff next year, and this time plans to enter a chili of his own. Bring it, Mike!

1 comment:

AmberAnda said...

My mouth was watering through this whole post. All that food, chili and otherwise, sounds amazing. The part about the rice, squash, and sage soup made me think of the blog In Praise of Leftovers. Have you ever read it? There is a link on my blog- it's a woman in the Columbia City neighborhood who is committed to using what is in her fridge to feed her family. Anyway, congrats on the cook-off win!