Monday, February 13, 2012

This Is Not a Valentine’s Dessert

Let it be proposed that Valentine’s Day is the most unnecessary and overblown of holidays. A day dedicated to the celebration of romantic love seems about as necessary to me as a holiday honoring English-speaking communities or Protestantism – aren’t most days already dominated by these things and their looming cultural reach?  As if it didn’t suck enough to be a single adult in America the other 364 days a year, there has to be one oh-so-special day in the darkest part of winter when a huge swath of the human population is reminded of what pathetic losers they are.  And those of us who are fortunate enough to be in happy, committed relationships (such as yours truly) are badgered into believing that cheesy jewelry and heart-shaped tchochkes are the only legitimate ways to validate our commitment to each other.

Bah, humbug.

Valentine’s Day was a lot more fun in grade school, back when boys and girls considered each other gross and inscrutable. My tiny grade school had a deeply egalitarian ethos; every kid in a class exchanged a valentine with every other kid, so everyone gave and got the same number of valentines. The highlight of the holiday, back then, was the opportunity to eat sugar cookies with red sprinkles on them, collect those little candy hearts to see how many different messages you could get, and of course, eat lots of chocolate. It was also the only time of the year when the school’s art teacher let us use pink and red together. The rest of the time, she said they clashed.

In short, it was a celebration of cordiality (albeit enforced cordiality – little kids do have to be taught to be nice to each other), friendship, and food – with just enough decadence to make it memorable.

In the spirit of THAT Valentine’s Day, which I vastly prefer to the pressure-driven adult version, I’m serving for dessert this year a simple chocolate-y treat that makes enough to share with several good friends, along with that special somebody in your life (should there be such a person). It’s a riff on a Valentine’s Day chocolate shortbread recipe presented recently in the New York Times: while the original recipe featured a chocolate shortbread base topped with layers of cherry jam and chocolate ganache flavored with rum, my version switches out the jam and rum for something with an even greater aphrodisiac (and conversation-starting) effect: a hot jelly made from datil chiles, a Florida specialty.

Datils, grown commercially in the U.S. only in the area around St. Augustine, Florida, have a distinct pineapple-passionfruit-like aroma and serious chile punch that marries well with chocolate. (Any other hot, fruity jelly would produce a similar vibe.) The combination of chocolate and chiles is traditional in Mexico – indeed, some of the earliest recorded versions of chocolate drinks drunk by indigenous people there were flavored with chiles – and it’s a combination that works. And unlike those cloying supermarket chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, this chocolate treat actually tastes interesting – and is a suitable accompaniment to either a steamy relationship or a heated political debate with friends.

And this brings me to another pet peeve about Valentine’s Day: every relationship is unique, so why are we always pressured into commemorating these special bonds with the same mass-market crap as everyone else? This guy I dated, before I met my husband, used to bring me big bouquets of roses fairly frequently. “Guys get girls flowers because we can’t think of anything else,” he told me on several occasions. Wow, how romantic.

But once, he actually did come through with something personal and thoughtful, and ironically, it was the evening when we finally broke up. He was a good guy – honest and well-intentioned – but we were wrong for each other in every respect: different tastes, values, politics, and goals in life. We finally realized that we liked the idea of being together more than we actually liked each other.

The week before our breakup, I had accidently left the lights on in my car when I parked it at work, and when the workday ended, I found my battery was dead. A quick call to AAA solved the problem, but my then-boyfriend was surprised that I didn’t have a set of jumper cables in my trunk. “You could have been back on the road a lot faster if you’d just gotten a jump from someone else in the office,” he told me.

But on our last evening together, we stood, still shell-shocked at our decision, in the parking lot of his condo complex. He gave me a long hug, then ran to his car. “Wait—I have something for you,” he yelled from across the parking lot. He opened his trunk and ran back with a set of jumper cables—the ones he always kept in his trunk.

“I want you to stay safe – always,” he said, thrusting them into my hands. “I wish I could love you forever.”

And this is the story of the most romantic (pre-engagement ring) gift I ever got: a set of used jumper cables. And this is also why most Valentine’s Day propaganda makes me want to hit someone: because I understand what the spirit of love really is – and you can’t find it in a pre-printed card.


This recipe is such a close adaptation from the original New York Times recipe that I’ll just provide a link to the original plus instructions for my little hack:

Bake the chocolate shortbread base as instructed in the original recipe. Replace the cherry jam with datil jelly (if you can find it) or other hot pepper jelly, preferably from a fruity chile such as a habanero. Likewise, instead of mixing two tablespoons of rum or other liquor into the finished ganache, melt two tablespoons of the datil (or other hot pepper) jelly into the cream while you’re heating it to make the ganache. Mix the heated cream with the chocolate as instructed in the recipe. Pour the ganache over the baked shortbread base, then garnish and chill as directed in the original recipe. (If you're sharing this with kids or hard-core V-Day traditionalists, top the ganache with red sugar instead of fleur de sel.) 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Let’s Lunch: Tommy’s Chili and Rock n’ Roll Dreams

It was the dawn of the 80s, and we were hard-rockin’ renegades, living life in the fast lane on the edges of the Los Angeles music scene. We were young  – I was sixteen when we started – but worldly: we were L.A. girls after all.  Yes, we’d seen and heard it all, unlike those pathetic teenage runaways on Hollywood Boulevard who came to town corn-fed and starry-eyed and ended up strung-out, destitute, and disillusioned.

We knew better. WE were going to be famous!

And we knew that becoming famous would take a lot of work. Mark, our leader, never failed to remind us of this. Mark was a motorcycle-riding veteran studio musician and a bit older than the rest of us – he was already 26 – and he liked to quote  from Jackson Browne’s song “The Load-Out ”: “Pack it up and tear it down/ They’re the first to come and last to leave/ working for that minimum wage…

“Yeah, this is what the industry’s all about,” he’d say as we’d collapse, hot and sweaty, after yet another couple of hours hauling instrument cases, microphones, amplifiers, tangles of  second-hand extension cords and piles of sheet music down the rickety set of stairs from our rehearsal room to our van for yet another concert. “Gotta pay your dues. The music world’s cutthroat—no one will respect you unless you can carry your own weight. And you know what, guys? You’re doing it.”

In those days, we never stopped doing it. There were eight of us:  Suzanne played drums, Kentia, Maria, and/or Mark played guitar, Sandy and Sue played keyboards, Judy and Michelle provided vocals, and I played bass.  Another girl, Dana, was our permanent stage hand  -- she already had both a drivers’ license and free use of her dad’s van, both of which were essential to our existence as a functioning band. We rehearsed for several hours every weekday afternoon, and sometimes on weekends.  I heard our songs in my sleep and tapped their rhythms with my fingers as I ate or studied or watched TV. I grew thick, ladybug-shaped callouses on my fingertips from the ridged metal strings of my electric bass. I could hook that bass up to my amp and troubleshoot said amp with my eyes closed.

Performances, of course, were what we lived for. We didn’t get too many calls for paid gigs, but when we did, boy did it feel sweet. Never mind that they weren’t in the most prestigious of venues – in time, we knew we’d be on regular rotation at the Troubadour or the Roxy or some other Sunset Strip hotspot where a talent scout from a record label would certainly discover us – but, as Mark said, we were still paying our dues.

So off we went to our humble gigs. There was the charity fundraiser in the parish hall at Christ the King. And the dinner meeting of area Catholic school principals at Notre Dame High School, an especially tough crowd.  (We played only mellow instrumentals for them.)  But no matter who we played for, we gave them our all – that was part of the game plan too, according to Mark. Every performance, he said, has to be your best if you wanted to make the big time. And someday we’d be able to look back and laugh about those evenings playing half-amplified Doobie Brothers and Pat Benetar covers (had to be considerate of the neighbors!) for venues filled with nuns and squealing children. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a necessary part of our journey.

Besides, we had no choice.  Yes, we were rockers at heart, destined for stardom. But officially, we only existed for four units of fine arts credit towards our graduation. And what serious club would listen to an audition tape from an outfit officially called the Immaculate Heart High School Contemporary Band?

Mark’s hands were tied. His rock’ n’ roll dreams burned even more brightly than ours, but he couldn’t afford to lose his day job as the school’s music teacher. And because we didn’t want to lose the coolest teacher in the school, we dutifully limited ourselves to our school-sanctioned gigs.

But after our performances, we allowed our dreams to take full flight. Somehow, no matter where we had performed in town, we always ended up at the same place for dinner afterwards: Tommy’s, a beat-up hamburger joint in a seedy neighborhood close to downtown. It was cheap, open late, famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) for the distinctive, gut-busting chili that came with every burger, and best of all from our perspective, known to attract a racy crowd of night owls, especially musicians. In short, it was a de facto industry canteen for strivers, and we considered ourselves card-carrying members of this club. Forget boys or horses or whatever other stuff the other girls at school were into: nothing felt better to my 16-year-old self than biting down into a sloppy, shamelessly greasy Tommy’s burger late on a Saturday night, chili dripping down my arms and  bass lines still pounding in my head.  It was the taste of dreams come to fruition: I’ve just been paid to rock my heart out, and my music paid for this burger! With five bucks left over! And Mom and Dad said I’d never make money in music!

I savored every savory, goopy bite, every word of our fantastical banter about record contracts and auditions and tours. I knew there would never be another time like this in my life, and I was right. For a short while, Tommy’s oh-so-dangerous burgers weren’t the only thing that rocked in our ordinary Catholic schoolgirl lives. We did, too.


Tommy’s burgers have been a favorite late-night post-party alcohol mop for Angelenos since the 1940s.  The recipe for Tommy’s chili – an object of passionate craving and even more passionate revulsion – remains a closely guarded secret.  Whatever’s in it, it probably won’t win any Texas chili competitions: it is clearly intended to be used as a condiment, rather than eaten as a dish by itself. It has a distinctively thick, gravy-like texture, and while it tastes distinctively of beef and chiles, it contains neither sizable pieces of meat nor any discernible chile heat (at least not to me -- but some  people do go on about how spicy it is).

Those who have attempted to back-engineer the mysterious condiment (there are many) are mostly in consensus that it involves a roux of flour deeply browned in fat, preferably beef fat. But some have suggested that the distinctly smooth, thick texture comes from boiling the ground meat in the sauce base to cook it, rather than browning it -- this will cause it to cook into a thick paste, rather than into distinct little meaty granules. I’ve decided to split the difference and use both techniques: a dark roux based on rendered fat from the cooked meat (there should be a lot of it; this isn’t a diet recipe), as well as additional ground meat simmered into submission in the dark, chili-scented sauce. Some recipes call for dried onion flakes, garlic powder, and even industrial beef patties to replicate that deliciously sleazy, fast-food taste. Others, however, point out that none of these things probably existed when Tommy’s first opened, so couldn’t have been part of the original recipe. Since I don’t keep those things around the house, I used fresh onions and garlic, as well as freshly ground beef – but as most recipes suggested, I used the fattiest, cheapest fresh ground beef I could find.

I won’t pretend that my version can pass for the original – it can’t, and I’m sure nothing can. (Tommy’s is now a small chain in the Los Angeles area; my husband and I agree that a Tommy’s burger only tastes truly right when eaten in a dangerous neighborhood after 10 p.m.) Instead, I think of my take on that chili the way I now think of my girlhood covers of those Doobie Brothers songs – a competent, agreeable, slightly more wholesome tribute to the original.


1-1/2 pounds fatty ground beef
2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola
4 tablespoons flour
½ cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cayenne (or to taste)
3 cups beef broth

1.Divide the beef in half.  Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy pot and add half the ground beef, breaking it up as you do so. Cook, stirring constantly, until the meat is brown and crumbly and no pink remains. Transfer the cooked meat to a bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving any juices and rendered fat in the pot.

2. Add the flour to the fat and juice in the pot and cook on medium high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns a pale tan. Add the onions and continue to cook until the mixture turns reddish-brown. Quickly stir in the garlic and spices and cook for about a minute more, until the garlic releases its scent.

3. Add the broth and whisk until the flour mixture dissolves. Stir in the cooked beef, then the raw beef, breaking it up as you go.

4. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and reduces. When done, it should be thick enough to coat a spoon. Taste and add salt if needed (both my beef broth and chili powder contained salt, so I didn’t need any more  -- so be sure to taste your chili before salting it).

5. Serve over cheeseburgers, hot dogs, or fries, preferably late at night in a suspect neighborhood, with good friends nearby to share the evening.

This post is part of the monthly, Twitter-based #letslunch series: on the first  (or sometimes second) Friday of every month, LetsLunchers blog about a dish or their choice based on a given theme. This month's theme is music. At least I hope it is!

 I'll try my best to post links to other LetsLunchers' posts as they come in -- check them out:

Linda at Spicebox Travels on the Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban beans and mojitos, and the Chinese diaspora

Ellise at Cowgirl Chef on Tiger Cakes, a tribute to her new favorite song, Valentine's day, and chocolate

Cathy at Slow Food Chef  on Southern chicken and dumplings, inspired by Roxie Waller.

Rashda at Hot Curries & Cold Beer on "Besame Mucho", banana bread, and memories of her father.

Patrick G. Lee on what (not) to eat during an organ concert.

Rebecca at Grongar Blog on traditional Jewish kishka and a song inspired by it.

Lisa at Monday Morning Cooking Club on Hawaiian songs and macadamia wafers

Steff at The Kitchen Trials on Garth Brooks, pina coladas, and coconut cake

Free Range Cookies on how the Bee Gees inspired the creation of gluten-free Thin Mints