Chopped Challenge #2: mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with corn chip cornbread

Course: entree

Ingredients: lamb, sweet potatoes, chives, corn chips

The first thing I thought of when N. issued me this “mystery basket” was meatballs: the lamb and chives would be pressed lovingly into a tender little sphere perhaps reminiscent of these beauties from my meatball challenge year, and instead of pilaf, I would nestle them into a bed of softly cooked sweet potato noodles. Spoodles?

But there were those corn chips. As with last month, one of the players stubbornly refused to fit in. I thought halfheartedly of nachos, but then, remembering a play on mole spices crusted onto roasted sweet potatoes I’d attempted a few years ago, I suddenly envisioned a chili. Ground lamb, cubes of sweet potatoes, black beans, a roasty dark beer, all swimming in a sauce resounding with the flavors of that most famous player in Oaxacan cuisine.

Of course my mole is an approximation. It’s an adaptation of an adaptation of one of Rick Bayless’s recipes, and I can claim no authenticity. But mole and its flavors correspond well with chili: the peppers are there, of course, though lending more fruitiness than heat in most cases, and the warm spices play so nicely with lamb, taming its gaminess. Mole gets its thickening power (as well as flavor, of course) from toasted nuts and seeds, and I realized these would make an excellent thickening agent for the chili, as well as adding tasty, toasty depth. It felt like cheating to just sprinkle on the chives at the end, so I decided I would make a chive oil to drizzle on top, for a little fresh onion flavor and a bright burst of contrasting color.

Now that I knew I was making chili, the corn chips became easier to deal with. Again, as with the chives, serving them simply as dippable garnishes to the main event sounded delicious, but too easy. Since they are essentially cornmeal and salt (with a few extras), I wondered if I could grind them up and use them as a base for cornbread, which is our typical accompaniment to chili.

After about two bites, N. told me that “the judges” thought I would definitely progress to the dessert round, so I’m going to call this a successful experiment. Lamb and mole are meant to be together, and as so many makers of bean-based brownies have already discovered, black beans and chocolate – that most recognizable of mole ingredients – complement each other very well. There’s just enough heat to prevent the sweet potatoes from getting too saccharine, and the chive oil, though we agreed it was negligible in terms of flavor, was a very striking drizzle: bright emerald against cocoa-dark.

The cornbread turned out well too, although it was a touch sweet and not particularly strong in corn flavor – adding whole kernels of corn helped, but as I’ll also note in the recipe below, subbing in stone ground cornmeal for a portion of the chip powder would likely produce a cornier end product (or, you know, just use cornmeal…). Something about the flavor and the softer-than-usual texture reminded me of those scoops of corn cake you get at Tex-Mex restaurants, which made me forgive its otherwise regrettable lightness in flavor. In an effort to make it a little more savory, and get good use out of all of my ingredients, I whipped up a little chive butter in case we wanted to top the cornbread. We agreed this was probably unnecessary – the cornbread was nice and moist on its own – but tasty all the same, and how lovely to be able to do the whole thing in the food processor!

I’m including the recipes for both here, and the chive components, though I have to admit that with the chili, I wasn’t timing things too carefully. My directions about how long the recipe takes to make are… let’s kindly call them an approximation. I’d say you should make this, if you’re going to, over a leisurely afternoon, so you have plenty of time for things to simmer.

Corn chip cornbread with chive butter
Makes a 9x9x2 inch square loaf
About 40 minutes
For cornbread:
1 cup corn chip powder, from about 2 cups corn chips, loosely packed (note: this will produce a less corn-y tasting bread. For stronger corn flavor, use only 1 cup of the corn chips, and add ½ cup stone ground cornmeal. If you do this, you may have to add just a touch of salt)
1 cup all purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool but not refrigerator cold
1 cup buttermilk (or just shy of 1 cup milk with a splash of vinegar stirred in)
1 egg
1 cup defrosted or fresh corn kernels
For chive butter:
3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature (what remains from the stick you used for the cornbread works very nicely)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
salt to taste
  • Preheat your oven to 375F and spray or grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Buzz the corn chips in a food processor until they become a fairly fine powder (they won’t go completely to dust because they do already contain fat, so stop processing before they become wet). Add the flour, the sugar, and the baking powder and process until well combined.
  • Cut the butter into roughly tablespoon sized chunks and add to the food processor; pulse 2-3 times for 2 seconds each until the butter is distributed in small to medium chunks. Add the buttermilk and the egg and pulse again in 2 second intervals until the mixture is combined – at first it will look quite liquid, but then suddenly thicken an puff (this is the baking powder activating).
  • Add the corn kernels and pulse once or twice just to distribute, not to break up the corn.
  • Scrape and pour into the prepared baking dish and bake at 375F until golden on top and cooked through: about 25 minutes.
  • Let cool at least 10-15 minutes before slicing, though we like ours completely cooled to room temperature.
  • To make the chive butter, use a spatula, spoon, or small whisk to combine the butter and chopped chives. Season with salt if desired. Serve with the cornbread.

 

Mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with black beans
Makes a large pot – at least 6 hungry diners
Approximately 2 hours
For chili:
3 dried ancho chiles
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
½ cup skin-on almonds
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cloves
3 dried bay leaves
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced
1 medium poblano or pasilla chile, stemmed and diced (take the ribs and seeds out if you don’t want the thrill of potential spice)
5-6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound ground lamb
1-2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained
1 12 ounce bottle dark beer, such as a stout or porter
1 28 ounce can low-sodium peeled tomatoes (I like whole, but you can use diced or even fire-roasted, if you prefer)
optional: up to 1 cup low sodium beef broth or water
1-2 tablespoons lime juice, if desired
For chive oil:
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons roughly chopped chives

 

  • In a dry pot over medium high heat, toast the dried chiles 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  • In the same pot, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, then add the almonds, the pumpkin seeds, and the sesame seeds. Toast until they are beginning to brown, then remove these as well, keeping as much oil in the pan as possible.
  • Again in the same pot, add the cumin, coriander, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, cloves, and bay leaves, and toast until fragrant, stirring frequently. If the pot seems very dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil. After just a minute or two, add the onion, garlic, and fresh poblano, stirring to integrate well into all of the spices, and sweat until the onion and pepper are softened, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the ground lamb, the salt, and the black and red pepper and raise the heat to medium high. Cook, breaking up the lamb with a wooden flat-sided spoon or spatula, until no longer pink, around 10 minutes.
  • Use a spice grinder or small food processor to grind the reserved dried chiles, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds into a paste. Add this to the pot along with the cocoa powder, stirring well to fully integrate.
  • Add the sweet potato chunks, the drained black beans, the bottle of beer, and the can of tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the mixture at a simmer. If at this point the mixture seems way too thick, stir in some of the beef broth. Keep in mind, though: it will loosen up as it cooks.
  • Continue to simmer the mixture for at least an hour, until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the flavors have had time to meld.
  • Shortly before you are ready to serve, taste for seasoning. It may need more salt. If it feels a little flat, add a squeeze or two of lime juice.
  • To make the chive oil, combine the olive oil and the chives in a blender and blend until uniformly liquid. Swirl on top of the chili before serving.
  • Other topping options: freshly chopped cilantro, greek yogurt or sour cream, crumbled cotija or queso fresco cheese, cubes of avocado, more of the corn chips, or fresh chopped chives or green onions.

Beer Braised Beans

Food Blog March 2015-0444There is little glamour in a pot of beans. Beans are humble, simple food. They are inexpensive, they fill you up, and most often they serve as a neutral backdrop for flashier plate-mates: pork, beef, cheese… When it comes to aesthetics, things don’t get much more exciting. Photographing a pot of beans is not particularly rewarding. The overwhelming, well, brownness of the whole deal makes any tremendous infusion of flavors discernible in descriptors only. In short, I suppose, beans are not Pinterest food.

Food Blog March 2015-0435More and more, though, I’m appreciating beans – not as an excuse to shovel away great spoonfuls of bacon and brown sugar (though really, that sounds far from terrible), but for their savory value. Beans are a vehicle for flavor. They are, as a friend once remarked while I was preparing dinner, “Nature’s little sponges.” Aside from the fact, as I pointed out, that sponges are in fact Nature’s little sponges, this tends to be quite true. Beans learn by osmosis.

Food Blog March 2015-0436Typically I take advantage of this tendency to suck up flavors in Latin American directions: cumin, garlic, various chiles. A few months ago, though, needing another few minutes before dinner and not wanting the beans that had been simmering away on the stove for who-know-how-long to dry up, I cast about the kitchen and emptied a bottle of beer into the pot. I’m not going to say angels sang or the clouds lifted (because let’s be honest; this weekend’s welcome rain aside, this is Southern California. What clouds?), but the revelation was substantial in its own way. Beans already have an earthiness that separates them from the rest of the fruit and vegetable kingdom. Theirs is not the leafy greenness or plump juice of their compatriots, but a creamy, grounded neutrality. Brown. Earth. How odd that they grow on bushes and vines rather than beneath the surface, like potatoes.

Food Blog March 2015-0440Beer, I found, enhances this earthiness perfectly, especially a dark beer like a porter or a stout. The bitterness of an ale or even a lager is tempered in a darker brew, giving way to toasted, bready flavors that mingle well with the earthy pleasantness of beans. Since this discovery, we’ve charged through a number of bean-and-beer concoctions, including a chile that also contained hunks of slow cooked bison stew meat and a barrage of spices – a triumph. But the one I want to come back to for you is the original, simple combination. Beer and beans. A few flavor enhancers by way of garlic, onion, some almost-burned corn kernels, and a scoop of fire-roasted tomatoes, and you’re looking at a side dish that I’d push away the mains for.

Food Blog March 2015-0439If you like a good garnish, I recommend the standards: crumbled queso fresco, cilantro, toasted pumpkin seeds, generous chunks of avocado, perhaps a dollop of sour cream or a few snippings of chives. But really, these beans don’t require much beyond a bowl, a spoon, and a belly in need of warming.
Food Blog March 2015-0442Food Blog March 2015-0445

Beer Braised Beans
Serves 2 as a main; 3-4 as a side dish
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 dried chile of your choice (I like ancho chiles for this)
½ cup diced red onion (about ½ a medium onion)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup corn kernels (defrosted, if you’re using frozen corn)
14-16 ounce can of black beans
1 cup drained fire-roasted tomatoes, from a 14 ounce can
12 ounces of dark beer like a porter or a stout
salt to taste
garnishes of your choosing: crumbled queso fresco, avocado, cilantro, pumpkin seeds, etc.

 

  • Heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the dried chile and the onions and sauté for 1-2 minutes. The chile may sputter a bit, and the onions will start to turn translucent.
  • Stir in the cumin and coriander and continue to cook for another 1-2 minutes, turning the heat down to medium-low if the onions threaten to burn.
  • Add the garlic and corn, turn the heat back up to medium if you previously lowered it, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the corn picks up some roasty color; about 3-5 minutes.
  • Now pour in the beans, canning liquid and all, along with the tomatoes and the beer. Turn the heat up to medium high, stir to ensure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan, and let it bubble away, stirring occasionally, until much of the liquid is absorbed. For me, they reached the consistency I wanted in 20 minutes – not totally dry, but not tremendously soupy either.
  • Taste for salt (canned beans can sometimes be quite salty, and reducing the liquid enhances the sodium content), pick out the dried chile, and serve hot with whatever garnishes you wish.