It occurs to me I can combine the number two slot on my list of ten good reasons to move to Hillsborough with my number two slot on the five things few people know about me.
Reason to Move to Hillsborough #2: The Wooden Nickel Things Few People Know About Me #2: I take pleasure in pain, at least in food.
The Wooden Nickel is a pub located on Churton Street, right in the heart of Hillsborough. It's intended to be more bar than restaurant by it's owners I think, but they have a wizard in the kitchen that makes the food the main draw for me. And, the food out of the kitchen... when you first walk in you are likely to notice all the peanut shells on the floor. They give you buckets of unshelled peanuts and you just throw the husks wherever they may fall. I'm not sure what's different about these peanuts from your typical Planters, but whatever brand they use they are really, really good. Maybe they are just always fresh. They must go through a hundred pounds a night.
Good items on the menu: An oyster po' boy, tater tots, and an "egg burger" which is a hamburger with a sunnyside-up egg on it, an unusual condiment that turns out to work really well on a burger. But, when you go in, look at the chalkboard behind the bar before you bother with the menu. They rotate through a lot of specials that are only available on random nights, a really broad range of stuff from cheese sandwiches with tomato soup to steaks. But the rotating item to watch out for is the fried banana peppers. Oh my god, these are good. They are cut into rings and batter fried and they taste something like a fried pickle but with a kick to them. They are my favorite side dish of any restaurant anywhere and are so good and so obvious I can't believe they aren't available at every fast food joint in America. But, the Wooden Nickel is the only place I've ever seen them... this alone is worth a dozen trips to Hillsborough until you arrive on a night when they have them.
But the star of the Wooden Nickel is the buffalo wings. I go with the wings known as "nickel hot." These are pretty darn hot, but they heat comes from chipoltle instead of the more typical cayenne based wing sauces, which gives them a smoky flavor to go with the heat. They are still hot enough to cause you to sweat and open up your sinuses, but not so hot that you can't appreciate the other flavors you discover in the sauce, the smoke and the salt, and even the chicken is still present, and they use good chicken wings, big, fat, meaty things that make six of them an actual meal.
Which leads to the second thing few people know about me: I'm a food masochist. I'm drawn to a lot of foods that just flat out hurt me. When I go into restaurants, I usually find out what the hottest thing is on the menu and order that. I'm almost always disappointed. Over the years, I've perverted my sense of taste to the point that only the most extreme foods satisfy me. The level of heat where most people call it quits is barely enough to catch my interest. I make a chili that I normally heat with a couple of different heat sources, usually starting out with habanero as my base heat, cayenne as my "high note" heat, and fresh jalapenos and onions soaked in lime juice as my last second topping "kicker" heat. This chili is, to many people I know, inedible. It is the equivalent of eating kerosene and lit matches. You don't so much break out into a sweat while you're eating it as a steam. And, the funny thing is, I'm usually thinking, "this is okay, but I wonder what it would be like if I doubled the habaneros?"
I do have limits. I occasionally find hot wings where they are so hot they have no flavor at all, they are simply pure heat, and these tend not to be my favorite. For instance, the Wooden Nickle has a level of hot beyond "Nickle Hot" that is so hot that it blots out all the subtle flavors that make their hot wings so special. I can eat their hottest wings, but it's not a pleasurable as the next step down.
I also frequently will make compromises with my chili depending on my audience. For family gatherings, I usually avoid the habaneros.
Now, it could be argued that my love of hot food isn't really something "few" people know about me. Probably, hundreds of people know it about me. But, what "few" people know about me, a legitimate secret, is my chili recipe. I've never even written it down before. So, here it is, the key to my award winning pain stew:
James Maxey's So Good It Hurts Chili
Two to three pounds of stew beef*
One big red onion
One big can of stewed tomatoes
One big can of dark red kidney beans
One pound of ground beef
One regular sized can of stewed tomatoes
One big white onion
Three or four fresh jalapenos
A couple of limes.
Start by searing your stew beef in a tiny bit of oil, then throwing it and the habaneros in a big pot with enough water to cover the meat by an inch or two. You don't need to do anything fancy to prep the habaneros, just toss them in. Also at a few teaspoons of salt. Bring everything to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Scum the surface a few times during the first two or three hours of cooking. Once it seems like all the scum is gone from the beef, chop your big red onion into quarters and toss it in, add some black pepper, then put the lid on the pot and walk away. The key now is that you will let the beef, habanero, and onion cook for 24 hours. This is going to spread the flavor of the habaneros completely through the beef. The reason you don't need to do anything fancy to the peppers is that, after a day of cooking, they just fall apart. You might find the stems, but usually even these vanish. The meat after 24 hours is mostly mush. If you did a good job of searing the meat, a few of those seared bits usually still hold together. Drain your kidney beans and pour them into the mix, and also pour in the large can of stewed tomatoes. Stir everything up. At this point, what you have looks a whole lot like chili, and tastes pretty good. Habeneros are among the hottest of hot peppers, but by cooking them with the beef for a full day, the heat is really spread out. You can get the beef into your mouth without a violent assault on your tongue by the habeneros. Instead, the heat sort of spreads slowly with each chew.
Yet, this isn't where the chili ends. Now you are going to break out a big cast iron skillet and start frying your ground beef. Season it with salt and pepper and put in a tablespoon or so of cayenne powder. Also, chop up about half of your big white onion and throw it in. In normally cook this until all the meat looks done and the onion is translucent. If the ground beef was really fatty, I'll drain it, but I like a little fat to still be in the pan for the next step. At the spice level I like, the fat is noticeably red, colored by the cayenne. Now, I turn the heat up high and pour in my regular sized can of stewed tomatoes. I know you aren't supposed to cook tomatoes in cast iron, but if you've got a good level of fat down the tomatoes won't hurt your skillet. Cook everything on high, boiling off most of the water in the tomato juice, until the tomato juice and beef fat combine into a thick red sauce. After a few minutes, the mix should look like hotdog chili. It tastes a good like hot dog chili as well, with a noticeable cayenne heat and a good meaty taste. If you've burned the beef a little I find that this gives the whole mix a little complexity.
If I'm making hot dogs, I use this as my final product. But, for my big chili, I now mix together this cayenne flavored, ground beef chili with the habanero flavored stew beef chili. I cook everything together on a low heat for a few minutes. I do a lot of last second tweaking with salt, pepper, and cayenne. If the mixture looks too thick, I might add a second small can of stewed tomatoes, drained. I also sometimes add more beans. If it looks too thin, I just cook it on a medium heat until it thickens up. I'm usually making this chili for some big event, so frequently at this point the event is still a day away and I will place the whole mixture into the fridge for the night. This lets the flavors meld together. Then I just heat it up slowly the next day for an hour or so on a low heat. The mix is really easy to burn, so patience is the key to reheating.
The final touch is a salsa made from fresh jalepenos and the last of the white onion. I typically seed the jalepenos--the white pithy part of the jalepeno is where the real heat is, and at this point I don't want to make my salsa the dominant flavor. There's still plenty of heat in the seeded jalepenos, especially if you chop them into very tiny cubes. Give the white onion the same tiny cube treatment. Mix them together in a dish and begin chopping limes and squeezing the juice over the mix. You want enough juice that the whole thing is close to the moisture level of restaurant salsa.
Spoon this fresh mixture onto a bowl of the chili. Now, when you take a bite of the chili, you should have three heat experiences. First, the mild but sharp hit of the jalepeno relish is going to hit your nose and tongue and really wake up your senses. Then, your tongue is going to get a nice spanking from the cayenne. Finally, as you chew, the habenero is going to start coming out of the beef fibers and give the whole experience a very satisfying lasting burn that should spread through your whole body.
Keep telling yourself that whatever doesn't kill you will make you stronger.....
* The actual cut of the beef isn't that important, since after you cook it 24 hours it all turns into strings. I usually buy based on price. A good chuck roast is my most frequent cut, but the last time I made this I actually used two pound of beef heart which cost, like, fifty cents a pound, and was really pleased with the results. I'm guessing this would work well with beef tongue, but I know the food wimps in my life would chicken out if I told them they were eating tongue.
**The number of habaneros is up to you. These are insanely hot peppers, but you are diluting the flavor through a couple of pounds of beef. So, the more peppers, the more heat. If I'm making this at the beach and know that kids will be tasting it, I only use one. If I'm doing it for work and know it's all adults, including some fellow heat lovers, I'll go with three or four. I've also sustituted a half dozen jalapenos when I couldn't find goodlooking habaneros.
***The cayanne powder can be swapped or mixed with various other dried chili powders. I've also gotten very satisfying result with a can of chipoltles at this step. Be warned, though, that if you go the chipoltle route you will wind up with a level of heat that only the most rugged chili eaters will be able to appreciate.
Finally, I have one last optional ingredient: Cactus. The big green pickled strips you see in jars in the Mexican food section. Napolitos I think they are called? These are basically cactus pickles. They have absolutely no heat, but, since they are big long green strips, they provide an interesting visual element to the chili. A lot of people mistake them for some sort of big green pepper. If anything, they actually help fight the heat, since they have a vinegary taste.
Okay, one last finally: I know that some people are opposed to beans in chili. I actually wasn't a fan myself, but I think that the whole chili turns thicker and even meatier with their addition.