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.

Finish line

The problem with cramming for final exams – as many of my students were doing only a few weeks ago – is that you end up trying to process too much information, and just as quickly as you learn new things, the old things you thought you knew start sliding away. That’s the glory and the power of writing. Once it’s on the page, it’s solid. No matter how many holiday dinners you eat (I’m onto my third or fourth at this point), those words will still tell you exactly what you did and (sometimes) how you felt about it.

I feel like I’m cramming for my final. Last week, before the holiday, before the family time, before the outpouring of memories and laughter and swallowed tears of all kinds and barking and yelling and joy, I made three Bittmans in a desperate bid to stay on top of the project.

42. Brussels Sprout Sliders: Trim and halve large brussels sprouts, toss with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees until tender but not mushy. Using the brussels sprout halves as you would hamburger buns, sandwich them around a piece of crispy bacon or ham, maybe a little caramelized onion, and a dab of whole grain mustard. Keep everything in place with toothpicks.”

I always intended to make this one for a Halloween party. It seemed fitting: for some, brussels sprouts are a frightening, disdained vegetable. But this new perspective on them makes them fun and perhaps even appetizing to those disbelievers who see them only as a bitter waterlogged grenade of disappointment. But I never did. So they became an appetizer for two:

6 brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 strips bacon, cut into eight even pieces (you’ll use six for the brussels. Eat the other two, or share with a tall, handsome somebody who shows up in the kitchen when the smell becomes too enticing to ignore)

dab (maybe 1 tsp total?) whole grain mustard

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Line a small baking dish (I used a 9” cake pan) with aluminum foil and drizzle the foil with olive oil. Brush or rub the olive oil into an even layer so every millimeter of foil is covered.

Set the sprouts, cut side down, on the oiled foil, spacing them evenly so none are touching. This will ensure even roasting rather than steaming.


Roast for 15 minutes, until the cut edges are browned and just crisp. Using tongs, flip over each sprout so they teeter on their curved sides. Roast for another 15 minutes.

While sprouts are roasting, cook the bacon. Mine was already cooked – saved from another porky occasion – so during the last five minutes of sprout roasting I added the bacon pieces to the pan to heat them up a little.

When the sprouts are browned and lightly tender, set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. As soon as you can bear to touch them, add a tiny spread of mustard across one cut edge, seat the bacon atop it, and place another sprout half on top to complete the sandwich. Drive a toothpick through the whole thing and serve as an hors d’oeuvre.


We gobbled these down like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. They were delightful and I highly recommend them as a party item: crisp bacon, zesty mustard, and the nutty crunchy slight bitterness of roasted brussels sprouts, all collected together in one perfect bite. Perhaps a New Year’s Eve treat to help the hours pass.



Soup and bread seemed like a good meal to follow our sprouts.

82. Cornmeal Flatbread with Onion and Sage: Mix 1 cup cornmeal with 1 teaspoon salt; slowly whisk in 1½ cups water. Cover and let sit for an hour (or up to 12 hours in the refrigerator). Put ¼ cup olive oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet along with a thinly sliced red onion; stir. Heat the skillet in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, then stir and pour in the batter. Bake at 375 degrees until the flatbread is crisp at the edges and releases easily from the pan, about 45 minutes.”

I followed these directions fairly exactly, with the exception that I used only half an onion. The olive oil and onion went into the oven for five minutes at 400F, at which point the onion slices were sizzling and the oil was shimmering beautifully.

Bittman neglects to note where and when to add the sage, so I stirred a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh sage into the batter just before adding it to the skillet.


This concoction baked for 45 minutes, until it was set, the onions were crisp-tender, and the whole thing loosened easily from the skillet and slid almost gracefully onto a serving tray.


We cut large wedges and tasted. It was unlike any other bread I’ve come across – more like baked squares of polenta than anything else, which made sense when I stopped and thought about it. Were I renaming this dish, I think I would call it Polenta Pizza. It was well oiled and spongy in texture, squishing pleasingly between our teeth and driving us back for additional tastes. N. wasn’t sure he liked it at first, but then he went back for a second slice and then a third. When I ribbed him about this, he said he was still deciding what he really thought, and needed more samples to truly make up his mind.


This odd little bread course could easily be dunked in saucers of warmed marinara sauce, or sprinkled with mozzarella or parmesan for a pleasing salty bite. Though the onions and sage were good, you could probably saute almost anything in that skillet before adding the batter: sausage, peppers, mushrooms… anything you’d put on a pizza.

A decadent appetizer and a well-oiled pizza/bread need a sober, sensible kind of soup to balance them out.

19. Saute chopped onions, garlic, celery and carrots in olive oil, then add chopped tomatoes (boxed are fine) with their juice, lentils and stock or water to cover. When everything is soft, add a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of red wine vinegar. Garnish with parsley.”

Since we were leaving town the next day, I didn’t want huge quantities. (This still made enough for four, but I froze the leftovers so nothing was lost)

½ red onion (left from the flatbread, so convenient), diced

4-6 small cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup each celery and carrots, sliced

¾ cup lentils

13.5 oz can petite diced tomatoes

2½ cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth, or water)

1 TB lemon juice

2 TB fresh, finely chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

I heated 2 TB olive oil over medium heat, then tossed in the onions to sweat for a minute or two before adding the garlic and the other vegetables. When the onions were translucent and tender, I added the tomatoes, lentils, and broth and turned the heat up to medium high until the whole pot came to a boil.

Once boiling, I gave it a healthy stir and then turned the heat down so the soup would just simmer, letting the lentils soften gently and the vegetables tenderize.

Simmer for at least 35 minutes, then taste the lentils to see if they are tender enough for your taste. We like them soft but not mushy, with minimal resistance but still able to hold their shape.

Just before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir gently, and dip into serving bowls. Scatter the surface with a grassy sprinkle of parsley.


We liked this, though it wasn’t the best lentil soup I’ve ever had. The flavors were enticing and the lemon juice made it a bright, rather than heavy, soup. The problem with it was that I like my lentil soup more like a stew or a chili. The brightness of the lemon made the shower of shredded pepperjack cheese I was considering adding seem extraneous and out of place, and I tend to get crotchety when denied cheese. But alongside the flatbread and the richness of the brussels sprouts, it was hearty but didn’t weigh us down.

2012 is fading like the last sheen of daylight across the hills in winter. 2013 charges toward us, all mystery and sharp promise. I thought about cheating and saying I was done; these three dishes are the final three, I made it, all boxes are checked, all questions answered, funtoosh, kaput (extra points if you can name my source!), but I just can’t. I’m too close. This final exam is too important. This resolution needs to be one I keep. I have two dishes left. I have two days, one of which will be spent driving from the Sierra Nevada foothills where N.’s parents live back to Los Angeles and my little house. I hope I’m going to make it. The finish line is in sight. Now I just have to stagger across it.

Spiking your stuffing

The one part of Thanksgiving dinner I refuse to make from scratch is the stuffing.  I don’t know why, but no stuffing has ever lived up to the Stove-top brand blend my mom puts together: one box of turkey stuffing, one box of cornbread stuffing, mixed up and tossed together and then, rather than just stirred into boiling water, baked in a casserole dish for twenty minutes or so right before serving, so the top is crusty and crunchy.  This is easy to do, since it takes my dad at least twenty minutes to get the turkey carved.  This is smart to do because it makes a texture contrast and provides a gravy sponge.  Other stuffing mixes I’ve tasted, and the homemade one I attempted this past year for A., who doesn’t like celery (have you ever tried to find a stuffing mix without celery?  Impossible!), just haven’t measured up.

And then, Bittman.

“26. Chop corn bread into cubes. Sauté cherry tomatoes, scallions and corn kernels in butter or oil. Deglaze the pan with beer, then empty the pan over the corn bread. Bake in an oiled dish or use as stuffing.”

You guys, this was amazing.  And given how you now know I feel about stuffing, that’s saying something.  Amazing.  Here’s what I used:

6 cups (roughly) corn bread cubes, toasted (use your favorite recipe)

4 TB butter

6-8 beefy green onions

1 pint red cherry tomatoes, rinsed and dried

1 cup corn, fresh or frozen (if frozen, defrost it first)

Salt and pepper

12 oz. beer (I used Drifter)

I made a pan of cornbread from my favorite recipe in a larger pan than usual; I thought this would result in a slightly drier bread, so it wouldn’t become mushy when the liquid was poured over it.  The cornbread was still pretty moist and springy, though, so after it had cooled for a while I cubed it, scuffed it around in the pan a bit to separate the clinging pieces, and tossed it back in the oven at 400F for fifteen minutes or so to get some toasty edges and dark golden spots on it, then set it aside to cool completely.  This worked beautifully and I’d recommend it, especially if your cornbread is moist and cakey.

While the oven was occupied by an herb-stuffed chicken (again, I know.  I can’t help it), I melted the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sliced the green onions, using the white and green portions.  I tossed these little rings into the sizzling butter along with the corn, and agitated them gently.  When the onions were soft and the corn just beginning to caramelize, I added the cherry tomatoes and seasoned the whole skillet with salt and pepper and, on a whim, a few shakes of garlic powder.

I turned the heat up to medium high for just a few minutes until the cherry tomatoes started to burst through their skins, spilling pulp into the mix, and the corn had browned delightfully, leaving the kitchen smelling like summer.

I then switched off the heat and poured in a full bottle of beer, nutty, yeasty, and brown (Drifter is a pale ale, so it has some body and depth – I wouldn’t go any lighter than pale ale, and might in fact prefer something darker: a brown ale like Newcastle, or even a porter if it’s not too strong).  The aroma changed from summer to fall harvest in an instant as the beer fizzed over the vegetables.

After scraping the bottom of the skillet gently with a spatula to remove any persistent browned bits, I poured the whole steaming bubbling mass over my pan of cornbread cubes and tossed gently to distribute the liquid evenly.  Then I stowed the pan in the oven: 350F for 25-30 minutes until the top is deeply golden and just crunchy.

We ate this with roasted chicken and creamed spinach.  Vegetarians shield your eyes, but the chicken just collapsed so beautifully across my carving board that I felt I had to show you:

But the stuffing!  The stuffing was incredible.  The cornbread soaked up the beer, and the sweetness of the bread plus the sourness of the ale created this yeasty glory I couldn’t stop eating.  And I don’t like beer.  It was just such a perfect liquid for this dish, contributing just the right amount of malty bitterness.  The tomatoes got richer and sweeter in the oven, as did the corn kernels, and they partnered with the green onions to make such a good accompaniment to the cornbread that I’m almost tempted to add them into the batter in my next pan.  Or maybe into a compound butter to spread on top.  That would be better, texture-wise.  Green onions, cherry tomatoes, and corn: three musketeers. 

This stuffing was gone in two days.  With only two of us eating.  It was that good.  If you’re in the Northwest, where Spring is shunning us, make this now while you still need your oven to keep warm.  Accompanying some baked sweet potatoes and leafy greens, this becomes a vegetarian meal.  If you use oil instead of butter and have a good egg replacement, it could be vegan.  If your cornbread is free of wheat flour and you use gluten-free beer, it could be gluten-free as well.  However you make it, make it.  This one is too good not to try.