One cannot be a true son or daughter of this state without having his taste buds tingle at the thought of the treat that is real, honest-to-goodness, unadulterated Texas chili
– from Texas House Concurrent Resolution No. 18, 65th Legislature, Regular Session (1977)
…huh. It’s been a while. No posts since December, and nothing particularly serious since October. Sorry about that. Life on sMars keeps us busy, and the NASA astronaut application kept me even busier for a little while, but I reckon it’s time to dust off the cobwebs and post something again. Today’s my cooking day, and, since I’ve got a pot of chili simmering on the stove right now, that seems like a good topic to write about.
You see, we Texans take our chili very seriously. The San Antonio area of Texas can make a strong claim to inventing the dish, and undeniably had a major influence in boosting its popularity in the United States. The Texas legislature declared chili the “State Dish of Texas” in 1977. On a personal level, I’ve been attending the Johnson Space Center FOD Chili Cook-Off since 2009, shortly after Christy and I started working in Houston on the Orion program. Although our specialty is the cook-off’s space trivia contest rather than the chili cooking, it still gives us a chance to enjoy the best chili the Clear Lake area has to offer. Even after moving to space operations in the Mission Support Area in Denver in 2011, we’ve still made it a point to go back for the event each year.
…Until I started a second career as a simulated astronaut. Last year, I was in isolation a mere quarter-mile away from the cook-off as part of the HERA C2M2 crew. And this year…well, even the simulated version of Mars is a long way away from Clear Lake, Texas. However, even though I missed yesterday’s JSC chili cook-off, being stuck on another planet (real or simulated) is no excuse for a Texan – even a half-British one – to miss out on chili. So, for today’s cooking, it’s chili time!
Here on simulated Mars, cooking chili isn’t quite as straightforward as it would be “back on Earth.” The HI-SEAS project started with a food study as a major component of the research, so we have a well-stocked kitchen and quite a lot of ingredients from which to choose. The catch, though, is that our ingredients are all shelf-stable: the sorts of foods that could survive several months or more in the cargo hold of a delivery spacecraft. As a result, I’ve had to get a bit creative in my quest to reproduce a good homemade chili here on sMars.
First though, here’s my usual chili recipe, an LBJ “Pedernales River” style red chili recipe I got from my Dad several years ago. It’s a mild “eatin’ chili” with beans, so I wouldn’t expect you to win a CASI-rules chili cook-off with this recipe without some modifications, but I think you’ll find it easy to prepare and quite delicious.
- 1 Onion, chopped
- 1 ½ tbsp Cooking Oil
- 2 Cloves Garlic, crushed and then minced
- 1 ½ lb Ground Chuck
- 2 tsp Chili Powder
- 1 tsp Cumin
- 1 tsp Garlic Powder
- 1 tsp Garlic Salt
- 1 tsp Onion Powder
- 1 tsp Onion Salt
- 1 15 oz can Dark Red Kidney Beans
- 1 10.75 oz can Hunts Tomato Puree
- 1 8 oz can Hunts Tomato Sauce
- ½ cup Water
Sauté chopped onion in cooking oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and quickly stir into sautéed onion. Add ground beef to pan, brown stirring often and drain. Return pan back to stove and lower heat to medium. Add remaining ingredients to pan and bring to a simmer. Lower heat and cook for an hour over a low flame.
In southeast Texas style, my family usually eats our chili over white rice. I usually top with Colby-Jack cheese, and a side of Ritz crackers.
In a bit of a twist, I occasionally replace the beef with Italian sausage. This was inspired by the chili recipe of a fellow MSA mission controller, Mykal Lefevre, as well as a garlicky pork chili submitted by the Chili Nada Chili team at the 2013 JSC Cook-Off. Aside from turning it from a beef to a pork chili, the spices in the sausage give the chili a bit more heat. However, the pork also makes it a bit greasier too, so I usually save this variation only for certain occasions – Super Bowl parties, fun cook-offs with my friends – when I need that extra little kick.
I’m a bit of a garlic fiend, so I tend to add a bit more garlic than the recipe calls for (a tendency that’s not limited to chili). I’ve even been known to double the garlic if I expect I’ll be eating most of it myself!
Now, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not able to cook this on sMars exactly the same way as I would on Earth. I’ve had to experiment and iterate quite a bit. As with any experimentation, there have been ups and downs. One notable example, featuring under-cooked beans and a substitution of ground sun-dried tomatoes after I’d discovered we’d run out of tomato powder, was particularly and memorably awful. But, persistence has paid off! I now have a chili that tastes almost like the version I make at home.
The big changes are a result of the somewhat limited supplies we have here. I have most of the dry spices I need (the only one I’m missing, onion salt, is easily replaced by a 50/50 mix of salt and toasted onion powder). Normal rice is shelf-stable and easy to prepare in the rice cooker. However, all of the “fresh” ingredients require a shelf-stable or freeze-dried substitute. Some of these substitutions are easy: before cooking, I rehydrate a cup of dried onion, 2 to 2½ cups of dehydrated ground beef crumbles, and 1 tbsp of garlic flakes (well…ok, I’ll admit it, a bit more than 1 tbsp…). These items substitute for their fresh counterparts in the recipe. Once rehydrated, the beef is already pre-cooked, so, instead of browning it, I cook the meat mixture until the garlic is roasted to infuse the onion and garlic flavors into the meat a bit. For the cheese topping, we have cans of dehydrated grated Colby and Monterrey Jack cheeses that I rehydrate just before dinnertime.
The tomato sauces were a bit more of a challenge. We have tomato powder here, which is easy to use, and, with the right ingredients and spices, makes a great spaghetti sauce. However, it took a few iterations to get a mix of water and powder that was neither too watery nor too tomatoey. I eventually settled on a mix of a half-cup of tomato powder and 3½ cups of water to replace the water, sauce, and puree in the original recipe. That seems to have nailed the right balance.
My biggest challenge, hands-down, have been the beans. At home, I use ready-to-eat canned beans. There are no canned beans here on sMars; all of our beans are supplied dry and bagged. Under-cook them, and…well, your crewmates won’t be thanking you for the resulting gastric distress. These tough little beans tended to trip us up in a lot of our recipes here on sMars at first, but we’re getting better. I’ve tried soaking them the night before, boiling them for hours, basically everything the directions on the back of the bag say to do (I’m sure there are some experienced cooks out there reading this, wise in the ways of fresh beans, shaking their heads and thinking, “Of course that doesn’t work. You have a lot to learn, young Padawan.”). After a rather ineffective overnight soak, I finally found success today with a bit over an hour in our pressure cooker, reheating the cooker occasionally to maintain pressure. I guess this would count as more of a learning experience than experimentation.
As for the Ritz crackers…well, you can’t have it all. On Mars, you just have to face hardships sometimes.
So, there you have it. On this, the weekend of the 38th Annual JSC FOD Chili Cook-Off, sMartian Chili perfected! Though President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom the Johnson Space Center was named after, may have gone on record as stating, “chili concocted outside of Texas is a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing,”* I reckon he might have given special dispensation for this “bowl of red”* cooked by a son of Texas stationed on another planet. I hope you get a chance to try out and enjoy the recipe I included above, and hope everyone had a great time at the cook-off this weekend!
*Also from Texas House Concurrent Resolution No. 18, 65th Legislature, Regular Session (1977). Seriously, give the thing a read sometime, it’s a hoot!