January 17, 2013

Atomic Chicken (Recipe)

It's not often I tease a blog post ahead of time as I've been doing on Facebook and Twitter; I also don't usually plan out my blog topics more than a week in advance.  The Atomic Chicken, however, has been on my mind for some time.  Years, in fact.  In "real life," I earn a living as the custodial supervisor for the local college.  Each year in January, before students return from their Christmas break, the various bosses in the facilities department get together for a chili cook-off.  However, unlike the start of the school year barbecue (which is matched by a pizza party for the graveyard shift), there is no equivalent event for those custodians who work at night; it is a day shift tradition only, and until August of this year I worked at night.  Except, that is, briefly at the beginning of 2007.  That year, I joined the day staff as a regular custodian just a week or two before the chili event.  I came, and I ate, but I didn't contribute.  While I enjoyed (most) of what I had, one thing was missing.  Heat.  Those of you who have been with me over a year may recall that I'm somewhat of a pepper belly.  A chili cook-off devoid of spice just seemed wrong.  As fate would have it, I didn't make it to 2008's chili feed; I was back on the night crew.  So when I rejoined the day staff as supervisor this past August, one of the first questions I asked my crew was "are they still doing that chili thing?"
And so it began.  I started turning over ideas in my head about the kind of chili I wanted to bring to the event, and it was pretty clear.  I wanted to have the hottest chili there.  There is a trophy at this event, a TUMS bottle rigged to the top of an old trophy base, and it would be a point of pride to win it, but more than that I wanted to make fire.  In the rough draft, I had ghost peppers.  Or at least a ghost pepper.  The Bhut Jolokia enjoyed a good run as the hottest pepper there was, until selective breeding came up with new nasties, and is still feared and respected as being far hotter than the already intense habanero pepper.  Unfortunately, there isn't enough demand for these spicy guys for me to find them at the grocery store here in Idaho, so in the end I settled on Dave's Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce supplemented with habaneros and other peppers.   
This is the stuff!
Now, I also originally envisioned my chili with beef, but when I got a meat grinder for Christmas I decided I would use chicken instead.  Besides, it would help set my chili apart from the other entrants.  So the night before I began working on the chili as a whole I ground two pounds of chicken breast (you could, of course, buy your meat pre-ground; the main point is that there is two pounds of it) and placed it in a freezer bag along with 2 tablespoons of Dave's Ghost Pepper Sauce (you could use Insanity Sauce, or some lesser bottled sauce as well, but you want to keep the "Atomic" in tact) as well as a teaspoon of salt and 2 teaspoons each of chili powder and cumin.  Then I just let the meat sit in my fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, I began by chopping up 6 strips of peppered bacon and heating them in my pot over medium heat.  Although I am a fan of the flavor bacon provides, the main rationale for this choice was that chicken breast is rather lean; if you switch to a fattier meat you should omit the bacon or at least drain off the grease after the meat is cooked.  If you do omit the bacon, add an extra half pound of your protein of choice.  Once the bacon has begun to crisp and has released plenty of fat, it's time for the vegetables:
Into my food processor (and if you are going to be working with such volatile ingredients, you'll be grateful for a food processor) went 2 small onions (one red and one yellow), quartered,  6 cloves of garlic and 6 habaneros with the seeds intact.  I'd purchased 8 peppers, but decided to hold 2 of them back just in case.  Being as it was winter, I knew the chilies wouldn't be at their peak, but while I wanted the Atomic Chicken to be dominant, I didn't want it to be inedible.  Once they were finely chopped, I scraped everything into the pot on top of the bacon along with 2 teaspoons of unground cumin seed and let it cook down for a few minutes.  Once the onions were soft and everything in the house smelled like peppers, it was time for the meat.   
It looks so innocent.
It was really nice cooking the meat in a pan full of other ingredients that had released moisture.  The day before, I'd cooked a test piece of chicken about the size of a quarter in a small cast iron with nothing more than a thin sheen of cooking spray, and had to open all the windows and doors as the burning ghost pepper fumes effectively maced my family.  The bacon fat and released water from the onions kept this from happening.  I added a bit more salt and cumin, as well as a couple of teaspoons of oregano, and cooked the chili until the chicken was completely done.
Next came the beer.  In my original mental image, this was Corona, but only because a pale beer seemed better with chicken, and I was using lime.  Then I got to the store and realized that I don't even like Corona unless somebody else is buying, and I only needed a cup of it; I just ended up getting something I wanted to drink, and you should do the same.  Just stay away from the dark, dark beer and you should be fine.  In addition to 1 cup of the Mudslinger I added the juice of two limes and--you guessed it--more peppers.  Four  chipotles in adobo sauce, to be exact.  These smoky peppers have some good heat, but more importantly they have a lot of flavor.  Just for good measure, I tossed in a tablespoon of the sauce from the can as well.  One I'd given the chicken just a minute to soak in the beer and adobo, I added the other ingredients: two cans of stewed tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, and one can each kidney, black, and garbonzo beans (rinsed).  I dropped the pot to a simmer and waited twenty minutes.  It was good, but not as insanely hot as I'd hoped.  Both of my children are pepper-bellies in training, so I called my son over to take a small bite.  He ate it, and this is what he said:  "It's spicy, but it's chili.  I mean, it's hot, but it's not 'effing hot,' if you know to what I am inferring."  (He's ten, so that was his polite side-stepping of swearing.)  Sometimes, as when his uncle Grasshopper is on hand, he'll puff up with false bravado, but this was clearly not one of those times.  I could tell by looking at his face that he wasn't burning too badly, although the bite was tiny.  So I gave a bite to wife, who isn't a pepper-belly, in training or otherwise.  She'd barely gotten a chickpea past her lips when she spit the bite out and gave me the "I am not amused" look.  I could tell the Atomic Chicken was almost there.  I went back and tasted it.  In addition to adjusting salt, cumin, and chili powder to taste as I would do at the end of any pot, I added the other two habaneros (minced), another 2 tablespoons of ghost pepper sauce, and the juice of a third lime.  I simmered it five more minutes and tasted again.  This was it; The Atomic Chicken, just as I'd hoped and dreamed.  The flavor of this chili is great, but the heat is incendiary.  I set aside freezer portions for a couple of my spice loving friends, and then put the chili in my mother-in-law's car for delivery to work the next day. (Note:  The low that day was 7.  The high was below freezing.  No issues with the food danger zone.)  

So the big day came.  It was time for the Atomic Chicken to take flight.  But I began to grow worried.  I'd cockily printed up a warning sign for my chili.  (Atomic Chicken Chili:  The Atomic Chicken is spicy.  If I've done my job, it is too spicy.  The Atomic Chicken was fed a special diet of habanero and chipotle peppers, as well as a careful blend of spices.  Enjoy.)  Then somebody from the maintenance department came by my office and mentioned that they'd grown their own fresh ghost pepper in the campus greenhouse.  I knew I'd made something hot, but had I failed at my one true goal?  I tore my warning sign in half, leaving only the title and a picture of a chicken spitting fire.  I waited.  

My worry was in vain.  I had--by far--the hottest chili there.  I was still in line when I could hear those who had gone through first talking about my food.  A big, burly landscaper in a Raiders jersey had taken a full bowl of it, and he was sweating profusely.  All throughout the meal, the Atomic Chicken was the bird on everyone's lips.  

So did I take home the coveted TUMS trophy?  No.  But really, I'm OK with that.  First place did indeed go to maintenance and their "Tomorrow's Chili," which was fairly hot but not insane and had a good flavor.  Second place went to the best of all the mild chili.  I took third, which I'm actually quite proud of--for something as hot as the Atomic Chicken to place so highly (out of twelve contestants) considering that some people wouldn't even try it based on reputation alone--must mean I was doing something right in the flavor department as well.  I know I loved it.  If you are a fan of the spicy pepper, you just might too.  

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