My sister called me from Colorado this weekend, in the midst of cooking for the UW ski team after a day’s races. She was with my brother, who was there coaching Stanford’s team. (Sometimes it’s convenient, having a family full of ski racers.) On the stove: a sweet potato version of the squash- and black bean-stuffed peppers we’d made together once.
There, in the midst of making dinner, she realized she wasn’t sure what to do with the potato.
“Do I just bake it?” she asked.
“Allison,” I admonished. “You can’t call me from Nationals with a question about potatoes. How’d it go?”
She gave me the quick, half-hearted version of the day’s race, then continued on her quest. “So I bake them. Then do I just scrape the stuff out, like we did for pie?”
Like we did for pie.
Those were the five words that got me: Like we did for pie. Those words, they made me realize that of all the things I might have expected, when Allison moved to Seattle, the only thing I really wanted was to have a sister again. I never harbored any real plans for teaching her to cook stuffed peppers, or sweet potato pie, or anything, for that matter. I just wanted to see her more, and take life’s juicy parts in together, in smaller sips—less How’s life, I haven’t talked to you in ages? More Hey, is that my sweatshirt?
It’s not like we ever stopped being sisters. But when you live smack in the middle of the underarm fat on the curled bicep of Cape Cod, and your kid sister lives in Idaho, it’s not exactly easy to bond on a regular basis. With my brother, distance never seemed to be an issue—we grew up in the same house, at the same time, close enough in age to suffer the mental and physical battles that bind siblings together for life.
But Al and I never had time to beat each other up. Visits were usually exciting, but hurried, sometimes stilted, and always, always too short. It’s hard to have time to wrestle with someone who lives across the country, much less invite her over for dinner.
Since September, though, when Allison moved here, we’ve been doing better. Sunday nights, she shows up with dirty laundry, chases the dog around the couch in circles, and pillages my closet for clothing that no longer fits. I love it all.
Conveniently enough for me, it’s not considered polite to pick physical fights with your pregnant sister, the way she might with my brother. So instead of wrestling, we cook—and increasingly, that means cooking together automatically, as opposed to me cooking, with her waiting, deer in headlights, for me to assign her a specific task. Now, she knows where the measuring cups are. She knows how to cut an avocado. She knows where we keep the good cloth napkins, and the hot sauce, and the extra sparkling water. And, it turns out, she knows how homemade sweet potato pie is born, which tickles me pink.
Of course, I should have seen this coming—should have seen that in my house, every Sunday at the stove means roasting one’s first chicken, and learning what goes into a fruit crisp, and learning to like real summer tomatoes. But honestly, I wasn’t marinating her in kitchen experience on purpose.
What I wanted, and what I now realize I’m getting, in part because we’re spending time eating together, is a sister who’s growing into a friend. We’re separated by twelve years, and are living quite different lives, with different values, and priorities, and schedules. But when someone that looks a lot like you walks through your front door with a hug every week, things change. We’ve gone from being related to relating.
Outside the kitchen, it’s fantastic. And the food knowledge goes both ways: Allison introduced me to the Swimming Rama stir-fry at Thai Tom, and to a new place for bubble tea, and someday, I will make it to University Teriyaki, just because she loves it.
But last night, when Allison came home after Nationals, and we started Sunday night dinners again after the two-month hiatus her ski season necessitated, I felt paralyzed. Getting confirmation that she’s watching, and listening, and learning every time she comes over freaked me right out. Teaching someone how to cook a specific dish is one thing, if you know they’re paying attention, but this whole subtle absorption thing is a bit disconcerting. What if the woman never learns to cut an onion properly? I know how to do it, and I can do it if I need to, but in practice, I’m usually sort of an onion mangler. It just wouldn’t do if she thought that was the right way.
It comes down to this: What if I don’t teach my sister the right things?
I’ve decided that would be okay. I’ve decided that if she’s learning how to stir-fry, she’s also learning that not every stir-fry tastes the same, and that some may, in fact, taste really bad. She’s along for the ride when I stuff peppers, and also when I tear their soft flesh accidentally, or burn the cheese on top. She’s realizing that the best part of a well-roasted chicken is a super crisp skin, eaten right off the bird right when it comes out of the oven, even if that means putting a bird on the dinner table stark naked. She’ll eventually find out that I hate eggplant, and that I’m not very good at making pizza, and that I’m actually quite lazy when it comes to washing vegetables. She’ll also be here for nights, like last night, when dinner means taking a vat of the world’s easiest homemade chili out of the freezer, simmering it on the stove for an hour for good measure, and not really cooking at all.
With any luck, Allison will learn that enjoying spending time in the kitchen means writing her own definition of what it means to cook, and what it means to eat well, rather than adopting mine or anyone else’s.
Last week, I cooked dinner for about 25 people with a friend who also happens to be in her third trimester of pregnancy. My assignment was chili—two giant pots of it. I made one simple vegetarian version (pictured just above), and a more time-consuming one, made with pulled pork, white beans, and green chilies (pictured at the top of the post, and farther below). We split and froze the leftovers, presumably intending to save them for when neither of us has the energy to cook. Our portion probably won’t last.
Here are both recipes; choose what suits you best.
Six-Can Vegetarian Chili (PDF)
It doesn’t sound as sexy as a meal made entirely from raw ingredients, but throwing together a hearty, healthy, vegetable-studded chili in well under half an hour appeals to me. In this version, loosely based on the beef chili my mother-in-law makes, I especially love that I can dump all the canned ingredients in without any fuss—which usually means that even on a tired day, I have the energy to make homemade cornbread while the chili simmers. Serve as is, or top with shredded cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
This recipe can be easily doubled or tripled—you’ll just have to cook the vegetables a little longer before adding the beans.
If you like a spicier, smoky chili, consider adding a finely chopped chipotle pepper or two, from a can of chipotles en adobo.
TIME: 25 minutes prep
MAKES: 4 to 6 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 (6-ounce) package sliced crimini mushrooms
1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans
1 (15-ounce) can black beans
1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans
1 (28-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (15-ounce) can corn
1 (7-ounce) can fire-roasted, chopped green chilies
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil, then the onion, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften. Add the chili powder, oregano, salt, and garlic, and cook and stir for a few minutes, until the spices become fragrant. Add the mushrooms, stir to blend, and cook, covered, until the mushrooms give up their water, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, stir, and simmer for an hour or two, stirring occasionally. Season to taste and serve hot.
Leftover chili can be cooled and frozen, in an airtight container, for 3 months or so.
Pulled Pork and White Bean Chili (PDF)
I don’t suppose I get extra credit for writing a recipe that’s double slow-cooked, but that’s just what this is: pork shoulder, braised to fallingapart in spicy green salsa, then pulled and stirred into plump white beans that have been simmered for hours with the braising liquid, tomatoes, cumin, chilies, and garlic. The result—a relatively easy, deeply flavorful (but not blow-your-mind spicy) chili spiked with shreds of tender pork—is enough for a crowd. Any leftover chili can be cooled, then frozen in airtight containers up to 6 months.
This recipe takes some planning—please read it carefully before beginning. And don’t be afraid to make it ahead of time; the flavors will only improve with a day (or three) in the refrigerator. I made the pork after an early dinner one night, cooked the beans overnight, and simmered the finished chili just before dinner the next day.
TIME: 1 hour active time, plus plenty of slow cooking
MAKES: 10 servings
For the pork:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 (roughly 3-pound) boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 (16-ounce) jars green salsa*
For the beans:
2 pounds dried cannellini or great northern beans (or a combination of the two)
2 (28-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes
3 (7-ounce) cans fire-roasted chopped green chilies
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
5 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
4 cups chicken stock
Crumbled cotija or shredded Monterey Jack cheese
*Be sure to taste your green salsa before using it—if you don’t like it in the jar, you probably won’t like it in the chili. I like using El Paso or Trader Joe’s version, although the latter is a bit salty, so watch your seasoning if you use it. Of course, you could use any kind or color salsa (or a mixture), as long as you avoid anything fruity.
First, braise the pork: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Heat a large, ovenproof Dutch oven or casserole dish over medium heat. Add the oil. Season the pork on all sides with salt and pepper, then brown on all sides (about 5 minutes per side, undisturbed). Transfer the pork to a plate, add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft. Return the pork to the pot, add the salsa, and add water, if necessary, until the liquid comes halfway up the side of the pork. Bring the liquid to a bare simmer, cover the pot, and braise in the oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, turning the pork halfway through cooking—the pork is done when it falls apart when you try to pick it up with tongs. Transfer the pork to a plate, and reserve the braising liquid for cooking the beans. When the pork is cool enough to handle, chop or pull it into small pieces (discarding any fat), and refrigerate it overnight.
While the pork is cooking, start the beans: Place the beans in a large pot and add water to cover by 3 or 4 inches. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, cover, and set aside for an hour. Drain the beans, and transfer to a large slow cooker, along with the tomatoes and chilies.
When the pork is done, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, then the onion, and cook, stirring, until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add the spices (next five ingredients), and cook and stir for 5 minutes. Add one cup of the chicken stock, bring to a simmer, and cook for a minute or two, scraping any spices off the bottom of the pan. Pour the onion mixture over the beans in the slow cooker, add the reserved braising liquid, stir, and cook on low heat for 10 hours, undisturbed.
Before serving, combine the beans and the chopped pork in a (probably very large) pot, or two smaller pots. Add the remaining chicken stock, and simmer for half an hour or so. Serve hot, garnished with chopped cilantro, avocado, and cheese.