American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Photography by me.

It’s a simple premise. Imagine that all the gods of ancient mythology and all the characters of folklore – we’re talking Anubis, Odin, Kali, Johnny Appleseed, John Bunyan, the Easter Bunny……well, maybe not quite a rabbit  -from every background and corner of the globe, actually existed and are still alive today, waging war with the new modern gods of the Information Age. Media, Celebrity, Technology, Drugs, etc. These gods, both ancient and modern, exist because people believe in them, worship them, pay homage to them. This, folks, is American Gods.

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We do worship our gods, if you think about it. Everyone believes in something. Whether it’s Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, technology, fame, cooking, gambling, youth, beauty, sex, drugs, music, David Bowie, Harry Potter, the Dallas Cowboys, the music of Soundgarden……….we all worship at the altar of something. We may not realize we do it.

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But we all have our religions and gods that we worship, don’t we?

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Shadow Moon is the erstwhile main character, a somewhat hardened man who just got out of prison and who is hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. Shadow’s wife, Laura, has just died……….and yet, the beauty of this book is that things are never quite what they seem. People don’t stay dead. Sleight of hand, both literal and figurative, keeps everything off kilter. Gods and goddesses once worshipped now work as bartenders, morticians, and prostitutes. And yet, the themes of life, death and rebirth are as strong in the modern age as they ever were.

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When Shadow is on his way home to Laura’s funeral and is waylaid by Mr. Wednesday’s questionable charms, he stops to have a bite at a roadside diner. In his terrible grief, he  remembers Laura’s unique method for making chili. Having never made true Tex-Mex chili – spelled with an “i” at the end as opposed to the New Mexico “chile” with an “e,” I was pretty psyched, actually, to give this one a try.

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Laura made a great chili. She used lean meat, dark kidney beans, carrots cut small, a bottle or so of dark beer, and freshly sliced hot peppers. She would let the chili cook awhile, then add red wine, lemon juice and a pinch of fresh dill, and finally, measure out and add her chili powders. On more than one occasion, Shadow had tried to get her to show him how she made it: he would watch everything she did…………….

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There’s nothing as quintessentially American as chili concarne, except maybe apple pie, so the tie-in with these American gods seemed particularly appropriate. This is the method that worked for me, based on the self-titled “Best Damn Chili Recipe” on the Allrecipes.com website. With a name like that, I had to taste it for myself, ’cause that’s quite a claim. Requisite flavor edits by yours truly, of course.

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INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion
5 cloves garlic
2 jalapeño peppers
1 Anaheim pepper
1 lb. organic ground beef
1 lb. organic ground bison
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 large tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 bottle dark Mexican beer, like Negra Modelo.
1 28-oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons red chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 16-oz. can of red kidney beans, drained
1 16-oz. can of pinto beans, in its juice
1 tablespoon sea salt

METHOD
Finely chop onion and garlic in a food chopper. Put in a large metal pan with the olive oil and a good scattering of sea salt. Cook until soft, about 10 minutes on medium.

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Chop the jalapeños and Anaheim pepper and add to the onions for another 5 minutes. Remove to a separate bowl.

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Add the two meats to the hot pot. Break down the meat with a wooden spoon, add the Worchestershire sauce, the beer and the smoked paprika. Cook for 5-7 minutes.

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Put the vegetables back in the pot, and stir to mix with the meat.

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Pour in the San Marzano tomatoes, and add in the tomato paste. Stir to mix, then toss in the red wine and the apple cider vinegar.

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Here is where you add in the chili powder, cumin, oregano, brown sugar, and cayenne. Go cautiously with the cayenne if you’re cooking for wimpy types; and if you’re cooking for someone you dislike, don’t worry about it.

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Cover, cook on low for two hours, and after the first hour, add in the beans and leave to cook another hour. Stir occasionally if you’re bored.

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Ideally, chili should sit overnight so that the flavors commingle and make a delicious dish. However, if you need to serve it immediately, let it simmer while you make the cilantro-sour cream garnish, which is terribly difficult and time consuming. Take a bunch of cilantro, stems cut off, mix together in a blender with a container of sour cream, and a tablespoon of salt, and serve with the cheddar-topped chili and some Fritos, wiping the imaginary – and Godlike, I daresay –  sweat off your brow as you do so.

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Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Autumn is in the air. The mornings have that slight chill, and you need an extra blanket on the bed at night. The days are still sunny and warm, but in the evening, the sun dips below the horizon earlier and earlier, and the pervasive scent of leaves and smoke fills the air. It’s the time to curl up with a good book and enjoy the changing season. And speaking of good books, I’ve been rereading the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder again, something I do every year as the season turns to fall. Comfort reading at its best!

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It’s funny to read something as an adult that you loved as a child. These books were my escape as a little girl. I loved Laura and her intelligence and her naughtiness, and the fact that she, too, loved to read. I used to think the vagabond life lived by her, her two sisters and her Ma and Pa sounded so exciting and fun. But then reading as an adult, I found myself thinking how painful walking on a bare wooden floor would be if you stepped on a splinter, how hard it must be to sweep a dirt floor, and how horrible it would be to have to spin and dye wool and make your own clothes. And I found myself feeling sorry for Ma, what with Pa constantly running off on adventures and moving them from a log cabin in Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas to a mud house on a creek bank in Minnesota to – finally! – a nice home in South Dakota.

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In the seventh book of the series, “Little Town on the Prairie,” the family is (finally!) happily settled into their home in De Smet, SD, and all the girls are growing up. There are socials, parties, sleigh rides, in addition to the daily life chores of housework, caring for the farm animals,  and cooking. In fact, reading the food descriptions in this series are a great joy for me, as a home cook. On Thanksgiving, the entire town contributes to a communal Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. There is food galore, pumpkin pies and beans and casseroles and cornbread and pickles and all sorts of goodies, and each table has its own delicious chicken pie.

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“In all their lives, Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food. Those tables were loaded…….there were heaped dishes of mashed potatoes and of mashed turnips……there were plates piled high with golden squares of corn bread…….there were cucumber pickles and beet pickles and green tomato pickles………on each table was a long, wide, deep pan of chicken pie, with steam rising through the slits in its flaky crust.”

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I love chicken pot pie, and have always wanted to try making one from scratch, piecrust and all. But I’ve always wanted to make cornbread, too, so I decided to combine them into one yummy recipe, in homage of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the changing season.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my memories of chicken pot pie and all the goodies inside. The cornbread crust came from one of my Nana Jean’s recipe cards I found stuck inside her old cookery book from the 1950s……..a little bit of happy serendipity for me. And the beauty of a cornbread topping is that you don’t have to knead it into a dough. You just spread it on top of the pie filling and bake.

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INGREDIENTS

For the pie filling:
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached and shredded

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2 potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
12 baby carrots, cut into small circles

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1 and 1/2 ribs of celery, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cup frozen peas

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1 medium-sized onion, chopped
Olive oil and butter for sauteeing
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 and 1/2 cups flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup lowfat milk
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or more depending on your taste)

For the cornmeal crust:
1 and 1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg, beaten

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METHOD
In a saucepan filled with 1/2 cup of chicken stock and 1 tablespoon of butter, cook the potatoes, celery and carrots until soft, but not mushy, up to 30 minutes, but check them for texture. Add the onions and cook another 5 minutes. Add the frozen peas during the last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Put this mixture onto a plate and set aside.

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In the same pan, heat the olive oil and a bit more butter. Add the flour, a little at a time, to the the oil and butter, and stir to ensure all the flour is absorbed. This part is important, because you don’t want that floury taste. Gradually add the nutmeg as well, a bit at a time.

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Gradually incorporate the milk and the chicken stock, alternating between the two, slowly pouring into the flour and oil. Whisk vigorously with a metal whisk, creating a roux. The roux will create that thick sauce that characterizes the inside of a chicken pot pie, thickening as you keep adding liquid. Rouxs do take awhile, so be prepared to keep whisking for a good half-hour. Add in the bouillon paste as you’re whisking, and keep tasting to see if the flour taste has disappeared.

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Add the bouillon cube, the cooked potatoes, carrots, celery and peas to this mixture, and stir well to mix. Cook everything together for a couple of minutes. Add the shredded, cooked chicken, mix through and let heat through one last time. Cover and set aside.

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Heat the oven to 400F, and get on with making the cornbread crust.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. In yet another small bowl, mix together the milk, oil and egg yolk, then slowly add it to the dry ingredients. The batter will be lumpy, but that’s the idea.

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Spray the inside of 4-6 ramekins with olive oil spray, then fill about 3/4 of each with the chicken mixture.

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Top with the somewhat lumpy cornbread batter, as evenly as you can. Place the filled ramekins on a baking tray and pop into the oven to cook for about 15 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the formerly lumpy batter has puffed up and gotten golden-brown on top.

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Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then eat happily, and be thankful you didn’t have to go out and pick the potatoes or pluck the chicken, like you lived in a little house on a prairie or something.

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