It's a brave pair of teenagers who decide to tackle their Granny's signature dish - Chilli con carne. Woe betide them if they end up toppling her crown ...
Anyway, armed with only a recipe and a pile of ingredients, our two intrepid teenagers set off on Week 7 of their journey to conquer another dish for their ever expanding repertoire. The guys had been holding up well over the past few weeks and now it was time to take on something a bit more involved. I wouldn't say this is a super tricky dish, but there are plenty of steps involved and when you also throw in the rice + all the toppings (what would chilli be without the toppings?) there was plenty to keep them busy.
So what did the teenagers learn?
- Get all the ingredients out before you start - It's comforting that the importance of this piece of learning seems to have stuck. There really is nothing worse than having to head out to the shops halfway through the recipe in order to avert a crisis. Crisis well and truly avoided. This time at least.
- Learning how to cut stuff is key - And there is a different technique for each kind of stuff. Today it was a lesson in refining the art of cutting an onion and the only way to get better is to practise, practise, practise.
- But sometimes scissors are the only way - Red pepper cutting wasn't quite as successful as the onions and there were a few rogue ENORMOUS pieces that made their way into the mix. Nothing that a handy snip with some scissors couldn't fix though.
- And, by the way, 'stinging onion eyes' happens to even the greatest chefs - #1 teenage son wasn't around for the time when everyone was reduced to tears, so this was new for him. He did a great job of pushing through the pain though.
- Washing up happened mid-way through cooking - Enough said.
- The pan needs to be hot to get stuff browned - And it doesn't always look great when you're mid-way through the recipe. #1 teenage son observed that browning mince put him in mind of a bowl of All Bran that has been left too long in milk. Being King of Cereal he would know about these things.
- Who needs a garlic crusher anyway? - For me, the world has moved on since the garlic crusher was all the rage. I much prefer my trusty Microplane because it's quicker, easier and it doubles up as a lemon zester and a cheese grater. Providing you remember to wash it first. You do need to watch your fingers though - #1 teenage son liked the ease of the Microplane, but felt as though he was putting his life in his hands. Literally.
- Don't measure anything over the pan - It's a disaster waiting to happen. Especially with chilli powder. Even if you have the steadiest hand. Been there, done that ... and no amount of crème fraîche can recover it.
- Taste, taste, taste - In fact in this case, the chilli powder was too mild and our teenagers would have ended up with something akin to a Bolognese if they hadn't tasted to check that they were happy with everything. It's impossible to know how much heat is in a particular chilli powder, so experimentation is the only way. Find a brand that you like and whose heat you understand and stick with it.
- There's a lot of essential basics to learn too - Like cooking the rice. We went for the simple approach of reading the instructions on the packet and doing what we were told. Once again, the only way to be sure if it's ready is to taste it.
- And learning to 'accessorise' is a thing - We know that chips are lost without salt (+ vinegar), toast needs loads of butter but there are lots more dishes that need accessorising in order to turn them into a sensational meal. Our teenagers were learning that a Chilli con carne should never leave home without rice, a blob of crème fraîche, a sprinkling of jalapeños, a few chopped spring onions, a dash of Worcestershire Sauce and some arabic breads (because Chilli con carne butties are THE BEST). Try it - Im sure you'll agree.
And what did I learn?
- Printing out the recipe really does work - And our teenagers have been finding it really useful. This week, the printer was at the menders and without this very visual prompt, our cooks initially overlooked the onions. There was no harm done but it highlighted the value of paper copies for beginners. Having said that, over the past few days I've also discovered that a number of the readers of this blog are just as fond of printing out recipes. Things you never knew ...
- What actually IS a tablespoon? And a dessert spoon? And a teaspoon? - We've used our favourite set of magnetic measuring spoons loads in these posts, but I wondered if our teenagers would be able to find the correct size of spoon in the cutlery drawer. They knew the teaspoon (despite the fact that none of us are tea drinkers) but there was confusion around the dessert spoon when they assumed that it would be called a 'tablespoon' as it's the one that they see the most on the table. Easy mistake to make. I'll show them this next time -
- Learning what can be done beforehand - When you're living a busy life, it's useful to know which parts of a dish can be prepared beforehand. Our teenagers needed to nip off on an errand part way through cooking the Chilli con carne and they were keen to check if this would ruin their dish. They were right to query this as there are plenty of tasks in the kitchen where you can't stop part way through. When you've learned to cook and prepare food over 40+ years, you pick up so many of the nuggets of knowledge along the way - often without giving them a second thought. Knowing when it's OK to press the pause button is is one of those nuggets and really highlighted for me that there's a lot more to becoming an independent cook than being able to follow a recipe.
So did they do enough to topple Granny's crown?
For the sake of family harmony, I'm going to say no - we are spending Christmas with her after all, and an atmosphere over the turkey would be unpleasant. It was a gorgeous dinner for sure (+ enough for the next day's food flasks) but I think if they really want to be right up there with Granny's Chilli con carne they need to work on chopping their vegetables a little finer. And we know the only way to perfect that ... say after me ... PRACTISE, PRACTISE, PRACTISE.
Another dinner tackled successfully by our teenagers. Here's to next week.