Tuesday, January 28, 2014

We ate horse meat for a year

In 1951, the Coast Guard sent my father to Stanford for graduate work in personnel administration. We lived in Palo Alto which sits between the the headwaters of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. I was 5 and have only disconnected memories...mostly about fruit which was everywhere: apricots, those black plums that are dried into prunes, avocados, sweet, crunchy figs and lots of yellow jackets.

And then there was the horse meat. The family took part in a dietary experiment for a year. Maybe we were supplied the meat. Our assignment was to have a number of meals each week based around "viande de cheval". I have foggy but definite memories of family discussions about the horse meat. As I recall, we thought it was just ok; kind of dry and tough because it's so lean. We were all kind of adventurous, food-wise but it was my father who had the experience. He had eaten horse meat as a boy during summers in France. 

not my grandfather
Jason, my father, was raised in a kind of 19th century style by a French governess in New York...his first language was hers. He and his brother, John, saw their father Albert J. Kobler, only at breakfast. It was boarding schools and France each year. It all sounds lavish, and I guess it was; peopled with very fancy bridge partners including the Aga Khan, William Randolph Hearst and Walter Winchell. Grandfather Albert died well before I was born and Father never said much about his Park Ave. youth and, sadly, I was incurious. However, his experiences gave him a love and knowledge of French food (including horse meat.)

He joined the U.S.Coast Guard when War was declared and there met my mother (who was also a Coast Guard officer.) They both got out when the war ended and he worked for about 3 years as an advertising copywriter. It was enough. New York didn't offer the life he wanted. He/we went back to sea and we commenced our lives, moving from place to place as a military family. All that remains of grandfather Albert is an incomplete set of ornate demitasse cups and saucers and the bespoke silver service you can see at the top of my blog posts.

We ended up eating a lot of horse chili. Like venison, which is also dry, it needs moisture and time to become tender enough to enjoy. Spice doesn't hurt either. That was it though, I've had no horse meat (knowingly) since 1952.

Nowadays, we still love chili, particularly when it's bitter outside. And we think it needs corn bread and a green salad with a dairy dressing of some kind.

Mother used canned beans, ground meat and a bit less spice than I do but it was, and is, always a meal that was familiar, homey and warming. She made her chili in Puerto Rico, both Washingtons, Hawaii, Connecticut and so on. I prefer to cook up dried beans with a cheap cut of meat, fatty but trimmed, cubes of beef or lamb, but any game, poultry, substantial mushrooms, tvp, etc. would work except seafood which doesn't like to be cooked for a long time. 

First, cook your beans                                    brigid burns
First those beans: they must be cooked until you can easily crush them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. I don't over-flavor them, an onion, a couple of whole garlic cloves, a very small piece of lean fresh or cured pork. A mostly naked ham bone is ideal. Maybe a bay leaf. I simmer them slowly until creamy. Depending on the age of the beans, which I never know, it will be from one to three hours. Most beans will do although lima bean chili just seems wrong.

brown the meat first, then add the onions

Sear the meat thoroughly, being careful not to burn the delicious browned layer that forms on the bottom (called the fond [French for 'foundation'.]) Do the meat first and then add lots of chopped onions and garlic. Season lightly each time an ingredient is added. If you are doing a vegetable version, toss the chopped onions very lightly in flour to make a kind of an onion roux. Begin to add a mix of dried, fresh or canned chilies as well as chile powder, paprika, cumin and oregano. When the onions are soft add enough liquid to scrape up and dissolve the good bits on the bottom. I have used water, beer or wine but, whatever I use, I watch the pan carefully and when the first liquid has cooked into the solids, I add a second liquid, preferably a rich stock but even lightly salted water will do in a pinch. It's a further distribution and deepening of all of the flavors.

Next, add tomatoes and begin tasting, I never know how much acidity and sweetness the tomatoes will bring. I am not interested in authentic Pedernales River Chili (Ladybird Johnson's recipe.) I'm more interested in the flavor profile that pleases Brigid. She has a sophisticated palate and it is her own: although she is from the mid-West her tastes were complicated by a 10 year immersion in New Orleans. After the tomatoes begin to break down, add the beans and as much of their cooking liquid as needed to make the chili a bit soupier than you like (knowing that it will thicken further.) Simmer slowly for an hour, continuing to taste and adjust. The things I use to balance the flavors vary but almost always includes soy sauce, honey or molasses, vinegar or lemon, red miso paste and the hot stuff of the moment (at this moment it happens to be the Korean chili paste, gochujang.) To truly finish the chili properly, let it cool down and age for overnight.

Our Chili, tonight's supper!

Remember, corn bread (I don't care for the sweet variety but serve it with butter and honey) and salad. Chili likes toppings: grated sharp cheddar, chopped raw onion, cilantro, parsley, sour cream, pico de gallo or guacamole all can be stirred in to good effect. I would say olé but the fact is that chili is not Mexican, it's more like American cowboy. In the 1800s, chili was made up and then dried in bricks to be reheated with water on the trail.

This is more a list of ingredients than a recipe, I believe that chili should be a personal expression...so saddle your own horse.


1 pound of dried beans, cooked with an onion and 3 garlic cloves until creamy, when they are done, add salt and pepper.

1 pound of ground or cubed beef browned evenly.

1 pound of yellow onion, chopped and softened in the beef pot

1 pound (or a bit more) of good canned tomatoes, crushed

1 cup of beer, wine or seasoned water

1 cup of strong stock or bean cooking liquid

To taste: chiles, chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, salt and pepper.



No comments:

Post a Comment