So here's the thing. I make a pretty good chili. It's not like I'm from the Southwest, unless you count Bradley Beach, New Jersey as Southwest, but once I started cooking for a living, I found out pretty fast that my forte was food with lots of zing and a heaping helping of white trash.
I've been cooking for 27 years now, and I've learned that the longer I cook, the less I feel I know about cooking. Maybe that's because I'm open to really learning now.
But when I was in my 20s and didn't know diddlysquat about cooking, I thought I was just the queen of the skillet. I would walk into a catering job with my bad ass combat boots and my chili pepper print chef pants and expect the cooking world to part for me like the Red Sea did for Moses.
Just a little side note here, if anyone walked into my kitchen today with chili pepper chef pants, I would laugh my ass off.
Back then, if a client would call up asking for something like Trout Almandine, I would barely contain how bored I was. Hey, this was the '80s; everyone was asking for ho-hum food back then -- lobster thermidor, chicken cordon bleu... Kill me now.
I'd actually start yawning right there in front of them. I mean, didn't they know who I was? The queen of the skillet doesn't make chicken cordon bleu!
But the second they would even hint at something with zing -- jambalaya, jerk chicken - honey, I was all over it with a triple dose of bravado.
"I make the best jerk chicken this side of Jamaica!" I bragged.
I would love to go back in time and crack me one. The very fact that you could eat my jerk chicken without your mouth catching on fire means that I did not in fact make the best jerk chicken this side of Jamaica.
Anyway, one day I get a call from some guys in Oklahoma. They wanted to hire me to cater a cocktail party for the anniversary of their advertising company. It was gonna be in the posh home of a client, out in the boondocks in Long Island. Like a two-hour drive from the city with no traffic. Hello. When is there no traffic driving to Long Island from New York in July?
They wanted a cocktail party and were pretty open to ideas about the menu, but the one thing they insisted on was Real Oklahoma Chili.
As I said, I make a pretty good chili, and maybe they might have let me make my spin on Oklahoma chili if I'd kept my trap shut and been polite, but I had to start flapping my jaw right away.
"Oklahoma chili is fine, but I bet I make the best chili you boys have ever tasted!" I announced.
I'm guessing to an Oklahoman the only thing worse than having a Yankee announce that their chili is better then the chili you grew up on is a lady Yankee saying it.
I don't why they didn't just hang up the phone right then and there, but instead, they agreed to hire me but insisted on having their chili shipped in from Oklahoma.
"I'm sorry, darling, but there needs to be some real Oklahoma chili at this wingding!"
I was so insulted, I went into the kitchen and cooked up a pot of chili just for fun, but the truth is I deserved the dis.
I mean, I wouldn't like it if someone from Georgia tried to tell me that they made better chicken soup than my Yiddish mama.
My chefs and I spent a few days cooking up all the food, and then the chili arrived from Oklahoma. We packed the party into two vans and drove four hours in traffic out to Long Island. After everything was unpacked, my chef realized he'd left every bit of that Oklahoma chili in Manhattan.
"So here's what you do," I said, "Get in the van and go to the nearest Wendy's! Buy 50 quarts of chili to go. Then we hit that chili with cumin, coriander, Tabasco, cracked pepper and anything else we can find in the house and serve it with grated cheddar on top. "
I'm still amazed that he actually found a Wendy's with that much chili on hand.
A few days later, I got a call from the Oklahoma boys.
"Aren't you glad you served our Oklahoma chili? Isn't it just the best chili in the world?"
I wanted to shout "If you couldn't tell you were eating fast food chili, my Yankee Jewish chili would have knocked you on your cowboy keisters," but I was still mad at myself for causing the whole mess in the first place by bragging.
"You're absolutely right," I said practically shoving my apron into my mouth to keep from laughing.
We served all that unused Oklahoma chili to the staff for a week, and Lordy, we were one gassy crew. The sounds effects in my kitchen were like a Star Wars episode.
I was pretty damn sick of chili by the end of the week, but I have to admit, it really was tasty. Truth be known, it was just a little bit better than mine. At the time, anyway.
Since then, I've started toasting the chili powder and other seasonings in a dry pan before adding it to the meat, and it really does make the difference.
Ms. Rossi's not-quite-Oklahoma-chili
You'll need 2 lbs. of ground beef, a few good drizzles of oil, 1 heaping handful of chopped onion, 1 plop of minced garlic, 1 can of tomatoes any kind, a few drizzles of Tabasco or your fave hot sauce, salt to taste, a nice few smidgens of chili powder and ground cumin, about a half coffee cup of water, a good pinch of brown sugar, and a pinch of dry oregano.
Sauté your meat in hot veggie oil until it's brown. Toss in your onion and garlic; let this cook five or six minutes, and toss in your canned tomato and juice. If it's whole tomatoes, break them up first. Add salt to taste and water.
In a dry pan, toast your chili and cumin, then toss that in. Add brown sugar and oregano and bring to a boil.
Reduce to simmer and cook one hour, stirring every 20 minutes and adding water if needed.
After an hour, taste, if you want it hotter, add hot sauce, if you want it saltier, add salt. You can also add canned or cooked red beans if you like those, too.
Cover pot and simmer another hour, stirring every so often.
** I have served as is, or in crocks with grated cheddar or melted Monterey Jack on top. I have served with minced jalapenos thrown in when I throw in the onion for extra zing. I have served with a heaping pile of corn chips. All are good, but maybe not on date night.