Tag Archive: chili


The bane of my existence is human error.

I fully and freely admit that I make mistakes all the time. Poor life decisions? You bet. Just this past week, I learned one of my mistakes first hand. A combination of pre-exam stress and PMS led to writing one e-mail that has changed things for the better, but even here, I am not faultless. Putting things off isn’t something I normally do unless the task involves potentially hurting someone’s feelings. I’m lucky to have friends that understand me enough to get that, friends who are honest enough–and genuine enough, or maybe mature is the word–to seek improvement when I have to be the asshole that sends the long and elaborate e-mail explaining the issue in a manner that will not generate conflict. Bottom line: I will become a better person for it. I will correct my past mistakes and be more assertive.

Damn being an English major. I can do things better in writing than I can verbally half the time, and the other half, I can’t do well in either.

Two weeks ago, I handed over my most precious possession: a paper copy of my thesis, all 94 pages. Its intended destination was the desk of none other than the department head; that which I loved like a child was being sent to a paper shredder to be bathed in red ink. Still, it must be done for the sake of timely departure. I gave it to the secretary, clutching it in both hands, and said, “This is my thesis, and to me, it is the most important thing in the world. Please, be careful with it.”

Cue two weeks of insanity, two grueling weeks where I forget that the sun shines, that the world is peopled, that I am surrounded by bars–temples of temptation that beckon me at nearly every turn. I must resist them. I must resist them to finish my coursework. The nights grew long and sleepless. The days are measures not in minutes but in words that slide out of the keys, shifting like hourglass sand that swept me away in its current. There is no rest for the weary. No food for the hungry. No cool and calming water to slake my thirst. I found spare moments of calmness, but it was not until last night, Saturday, that I felt a wave of relief crash down on me. Ten hours of nearly non-stop work, and I had given birth to the final drafts of the documents that would end my classes. One poorly written twenty-page paper and corresponding handout, and one Friday morning, separated me from the finish line I have been dashing towards for two years.

Of late, my dash has become more of a Smirnoff sort of stagger. My vision is touch and go under the additional stress and fatigue. I’ve lost count of how many meals I’ve eaten out this week. The coffee shop has become my house of worship, and I attend mass daily. Hail coffee, curry, and tea lattes, the lifeblood of exam week students! Still, my perseverance has paid off, and I have much to show for my devotion. One class down, one more to go… and my defense is only six days away. I treat myself with a slightly longer than usual break, then sleep. It took me forty-five minutes, but I finally managed to reign Morpheus in.

Sunday morning began at a slow pace. I threw my laundry in, meandered the internet stream for about a half an hour, and checked my e-mail.

Then, human error struck.

My most cherished possession was not only missing in action; it had never come into the hands of the department head. I can only imagine how it deviously sneaked out of eye shot while the secretary was busy with something else, or how, hapless and homesick, some sinister paper mites crept out of the stapler and gnawed it to dust.

Once again, I find myself turning to soup for the answer. The last of last week’s leftovers, also the last in the fourteen-week soup for the sole challenge, is sitting in the fridge. Between page 15 and 16 of an English paper, and after two thoroughly irritated phone calls, one to my parents, one to Melissa, I heat the last bowl and depart to throw my laundry in the dryer. There are some things in life you can help, things like how spicy your soup gets; and then, there are some things you just can’t. Some people deal with it in sighs and complaints. I deal with it using a slew of clauses strung together by frustration… and a shrug. I can sleep easy knowing I’ve done all I can.

After fourteen weeks, the soup is finished, as the thesis will soon be… but it’s not quite the same. I don’t plan to write another thesis, but I plan to keep making soup. My life is made of soup and stories; what good would I be without one or the other?

Chicken Tortilla Soup for the Sole

The Final Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3-4 tbsp canola oil
  • 4 chicken tenders, frozen
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper, plus another ¼ tsp
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 fresh lime
  • 1 package of 10 corn tortillas
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • Shredded sharp cheddar cheese to top soup

Directions

  1. Dice onion. In three-quart sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and garlic and sauté.
  2. While onion is sautéing, heat canola oil in a separate pan. Cut six of the tortillas into ½ inch strips and fry until crispy. Remove with whatever cooking implement you have that works best for that sort of thing, and place on a plate covered in a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and ¼ tsp cayenne pepper. Set aside.
  3. Add chili powder and cumin to the pan. Cook for about 30 seconds to a minute.
  4. Add chicken stock, frozen chicken, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer until chicken is cooked (about 20 minutes).
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Tear remaining 4 tortillas into bite-sized pieces.
  7. Add frozen corn and tortillas to the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes.
  8. Dice cilantro. Remove soup from heat. Add cilantro, remaining cayenne, and the juice of one lime to the pan.
  9. Top with crispy tortilla strips and shredded sharp cheddar (or cheese of your choosing).

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About two months ago, just before beginning my creative nonfiction course, I began to notice something strange with my vision. I was seeing the world a little differently than normal, and not just because I had been living alone for over a year. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had successfully completed an interview for a job in Japan or the fact that I was looking at the world differently to meet my daily quota of haiku.

I was coming back from a visit home over Christmas when I noticed the road signs doing some odd things. The white lettering on the green background started shifting in ways that I instinctively knew was not normal. Looking back on things, I had probably been experiencing similar things since August of 2011, but I had simply been to busy to sit down and take notice. Things in the distance started shifting in the same unnatural way wherever I was, whether I was looking the gridded window panes or the Max and Emily’s menu. Letters seemed to occupy an infinite number of places at the same time, all centered around a concentric line of points that surrounded the center point where they rested. My eyes weren’t watering because of onions, but the same fuzzy effect of tears lingered, at least for a few seconds, whenever I shifted my eyes from the computer screen to the distance or from the page to the horizon.

Something must be wrong. That was my first thought. And what better time to figure that out than a trip home for Spring Break, where the vision insurance actually covers most of the exam?

By some miracle, I called the place both of my parents went when they started having vision problems and managed to get an appointment the next day. I pulled into the office and approached the front desk. “Are you here for an appointment?” the receptionist asked.

“Yes, ma’am, at 12:40.”

“Alright. Our computers are actually down right now. What’s your name?”

I told her.

“Alright. We’ve got some paperwork for you to fill out.”

So began the gauntlet. I filled it out hastily. “We’ve got two ways to check the backs of your eye,” she explained. “We can either use the drops or a scan. Now, these scans aren’t covered by your insurance, but they start at $39…”

“I think I’ll stick with the eye drops.” Having just returned from a trip to Chicago, I wanted this trip to have as small of a financial impact as possible.

Michelle, the optometrist’s aid, had the same color of hair as the receptionist did: blonde. It jumped unnaturally as she got further away. She ran me through a gauntlet of exams that left my eyes feeling achy and irritated, particularly the drops. She had threatened me with pain beforehand, jokingly, and I had thought she was serious. “Oh, no… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you… there isn’t any pain.” She then proceeded to drip what I still firmly believe was onion juice into my eye. “Oh, I forgot to warn you… the drops sting a little when they go in. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

The overly happy optometrist appeared before I can return to Bleak House. He shook my hand in his vice-like grip and introduced himself.

“Alright. We’re going to run one more test.” He started flipping through lenses, asking me which one looks clearer. In the space of two minutes, about 20 lenses, and my best guesses at clarity, he has identified the issue.

“Well, the good news is you’re 20/20 in both eyes still. Your cones and rods look excellent; I expect your eyes will be healthy forever. What you have is a spasm of accommodation.” He drew me a little diagram to explain the issue, and I watched him draw what I thought looked like a cored bell pepper. “You have this lens in the back of your eye that automatically adjusts when going from distance to close-up. It’s supposed to go 250 both ways. Yours is only going 175 out and 100 back in. That’s what’s causing the words to look a little jumpy. Now, the causes of this are stress, anxiety, and fatigue. I’ll bet you have all of those as a grad student.”

“Yeah, and then some.” We shared a laugh.

“Now, all you need to do are these eye exercises. Hold this pencil with words on it close to your eye, just before the text starts to blur, then focus on the text on the wall. Do ten reps for each eye twice a day. Oh, and reading glasses would also help. You need +0.75s.”

“Awesome. I think I’ll just do the exercises for now.” Talk about duplicity. I asked the receptionist for some insurance information, and the figures drive me so close to weeping that I resolve to hunt them down elsewhere. Unfortunately, I met with a rather annoying spasm of accommodation: my grade of reading glasses is too small for any store to carry. Thankfully, by the power of the internet, I have managed to exercise some buying power that will hopefully help correct this spasm at a much lower cost.

Looking back on my life, I realize I have met with many spasms of accommodation, not all of them effecting my eyes. The biggest one so far was moving out on my own. The adjustment took three weeks, during which I experienced a variety of panic attacks and related illness. Soup did nothing to cure my tremors. I simply needed to tough it out. Things got better once I learned how to fill the empty hours with labor of all kinds.

But now, I’m on the cusp of a new spasm of accommodation called culture shock. In five months, I will engage in a 17-hour flight to Japan, where I will begin a job as an English teacher. Right now, I can only question how long it will last, and though I look forward to it, I anticipate the adjustment period to be a little longer, the challenges to be infinitely more daunting, and the jet lag to kill me softly.Worse still, I will have to adjust to an e-reader after a lifetime of paper books… and how will I manage to enjoy anything with the smell and texture of paper, the ever-alluring perfume that drew me down this path to begin with?

Seventeen hours is a long time to fly, but this is what I wanted, and what I still want, more than anything: an opportunity to prove that I can be happy with a Master’s degree in English. It will just take some effort, much like white chicken chili. The first time I made it, I was bitterly disappointed. It was too beery. Not creamy enough. When I re-heated the frozen part, it was so revolting that I promptly ushered it to the trash can. I had eaten good white chicken chili on one occasion, in a soup cook-off at my alma mater. My attempt to match it failed. Someday, though, when I had more experience, I vowed to return to the recipe that had so shamed my cooking skills.

The Chicago trip threw my soup rhythm a bit; the pot of my life bubbled unevenly beneath an onslaught of social opportunities, and the homework remained neglected like the black crust on the bottom of a scorched pan. “I need to borrow the kitchen,” I informed my parents on Tuesday at a local Middle Eastern restaurant.

“Why?”

“To cook soup,” I answered. “Besides, I need to cook you a ‘thanks for the support’ meal.”

“Alright,” my mom answered. “That’s fine with me.”

“What do you guys want?”

“How about some chicken chili?” my dad asked.

Maybe it was just another spasm of accommodation in my life, but suddenly, I was presented with a high-stakes opportunity to trump the soup that once trumped me. Move over, Iron Chef, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Chopped. This is reality, not reality TV; this was my opportunity to impress the man who educated my palette for twenty-three years with my own cooking skills, to show him how much I had grown under his tutelage. Using the barricade of “It’s homework, so stay out of my kitchen,” I managed to throw down a meal without much interference.

“That looks like a mighty small pot of soup. What are you guys going to eat?” my dad asked, giving a hearty laugh. “Oh, you haven’t added the beans yet. Still not sure what you’re going to eat, though.”

“I’m making biscuits and salad to go along with it, so it’ll be more than enough. Just trust me.”

The results are in. I got rave reviews the whole table ’round.

But I respect my readers’ independent streaks. Partly because of some minor resistance to the Japan plan on the parental front, I like to let people make their own decisions.

White Bean Chicken Chili for the Sole
Makes 4 servings… and feeds a family of three with one leftover bowl for dad’s lunch
(Inspired by this recipe, but with 50% more chicken)

The Seventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 1.5 lbs chicken breasts
  • 2 fresh jalapeños
  • 1 poblano pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cans cannelloni beans
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 14.5 oz chicken broth
  • ½ cup half and half
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup Monterrey jack cheese

Directions

  1. Dice chicken. Saute with onions, cumin, chili powder, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, or until chicken is cooked.
  2. Dice jalapeños and poblano. Cook for an additional 2 minutes.
  3. Mince garlic. Add and cook for 3 minutes.
  4. Add chicken stock and half and half. Simmer for 35-45 minutes.
  5. Drain and rinse beans. Add to pan, cook for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add sour cream and mix well.
  7. Add cheese and also mix well. Simmer for a final 10 minutes.
  8. Top with black pepper and cheddar cheese before serving. Goes great with a garden salad and some garlic cheddar biscuits (which are like these chipotle cheddar garlic biscuits, except with sharp cheddar instead. I’ve got a couple of pictures in the slideshow… ^_^).

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I have always done my best thinking in the shower.

Perhaps it is the five years of childhood I spent swimming, throwing myself into frigid water on sixty-degree summer mornings. It could also very well be the years I spent on the boat with my parents, casting lines and catching perch or dangling my feet off the edge of the tiny white plastic platform screwed on next to the motor.

Is it a coincidence that both have ruined my otherwise perfect dental work?

I was seven, kneeling backwards on the boat. “Don’t do that,” my mother chided. “You’re going to get hurt.” But I laughed and ignored her. Just two minutes later, we hit a wave that gave my mouth an up close and personal encounter with the plexiglass edge. Tears were immediate. “Damn it, Amanda. Let me see.” She pulled back my lips, shockingly unwounded, and locked her eyes on my front tooth, one of several that were now permanent teeth. “Yep… it’s chipped.” I cried harder, not for the pain but for the loss I felt in that moment.

It was the moment I realized that unlike my dad’s chili, I wasn’t perfect.

Dad's Chili

No one can beat dad's chili. ^_^

Two years later, I was doing backstroke at a swim meet. I was in the middle of a 100 IM, getting ready to face the breast stroke. All I could think of was how much I hated it because no matter how hard I tried, I was never really frog enough to master it.

The world suddenly went black for a moment.

I must have miscounted my strokes. I had a vague recollection of being in the water, but for three seconds, I couldn’t act. I just sort of hovered there, suspended between the bottom of the pool and the surface. I was supposed to be doing something… what was it?

Oh. Breaststroke.

For my trouble, I got third place in the IM. The white ribbon reminds me of what the pool took from me that day: one tiny fragment of my leftmost eyetooth.

Neither defect is noticeable to the average person’s naked eye. Dentists, on the other hand, love to remind me of my less than perfect mouth and insist on crowning these unnoticeable scars. Each visit yields much the same conversation. “You ought to get those teeth crowned. Other than that and a little bit of crookedness, your mouth is perfect. I wish you’d get braces to straighten out those bottom teeth…”

“Look,” I interrupt. “They aren’t rotting and falling out of my head, and they don’t hurt when I eat, so as far as I’m concerned, they’re fine.”

“Well, then don’t hurt now, but one day, that’s going to cause some serious problems.”

“And one day, when I have the money to pay for cosmetic work, I’ll do something about it. For now, they’re fine.”

I never try to explain that these little defects are part of who I am.

In the middle of one recent shower, I paused in the middle of shampooing my hair as a hazy, vague sort of memory surfaced. It was the end of my Victorian literature class, and I had just waited ten minutes to discuss an assignment with a very in-demand professor. We determined to meet the following Wednesday at 12:30 to discuss it. The recollection was an image of her face, animated but somehow weary, accompanied by the words, “Be sure to send it to me beforehand. That way, our meeting goes quickly.”

It was 11:35 on Tuesday when this fact hit me. After washing the burn of shampoo out of my eyes, I swallowed my grumblings. This memory is sending me downstairs to send an e-mail when all I really want to do is go to bed.

Why not get a bowl of soup while I’m at it? I’m feeling inspired, so I need a little brain food anyway.

This shower yielded one additional worthwhile thought. Just a fistful of minutes before my memory kicked into full throttle and sent me careening off of my routine, I saw the last parallel I ever thought I’d see, and it all began with a question.

How is soup like writing?

I came up with three possibilities in the course of my mental meanderings.

They are both delicious. Given, but relative. I work with a student who loathes academic writing with every fiber of their being but who professes a great love for soup. This common ground somehow gets us through every session without stewing too much.

Good soup and good writing rely on balance. Any cook knows that one extra dash of pepper could spoil the golden equilibrium in a piping hot bowl of soup. As a sole chef, I have to gauge this on a much smaller level than I’ve been doing for the past year and a half because my typical six to eight cups of cooking liquid must be reduced to between three and four. In terms of balance, this poses unique challenges. One potato too many, one chicken finger too many, and what was a good idea in theory quickly becomes a recipe for potential failure that can only be rescued by some last-minute tweaking on my part… as is the case with good writing no matter what the genre. Creative writing is the eight-quart pot, scientific writing the three-quart pan, and literary analysis somewhere between the two. All of them are sustained (and sustain the reader) through balance.

More than all of this, however, I realize that good writing and good soup are good by mere virtue of their perpetual incompleteness. Soup and writing will never be entirely done.

I default to my curry recipe for an example despite the fact that it is not soup.

curry

Look at that delicious bowl of chicken curry goodness!

My parents came home one day from the store to find their house smelling a little like India. “What are you cooking?” my dad asked, dropping a load of grocery bags on the table.

“Curry.”

He looked at the dusting of curry on top of rice and lentils in the pan.

“You know it’s supposed to be a sauce, right?”

“It’s a work in progress,” I responded.

Before attempt number two, several months later, I took a look at a recipe on the internet just to give myself a general idea of what I was doing. My parents were on vacation camping and had left me behind to guard the house and to work my minimum wage job. My success was a private one, celebrated on with a bowl of what at the time I thought must surely be nirvana.

Since that first batch, I have gone back to it again and again. The ingredients change a little every time in proportion and variety because of the same faulty memory that made me forget about sending my professor an e-mail. Then again, how I assemble my curry also depends on what I have in the freezer and what I’m in the mood for. Maybe I want potatoes in it this time. Maybe I just want the good old classic bag of frozen mixed vegetables. Maybe that’s all I have on hand. With a wooden spoon, I write a poem for my tongue in a pan and savor each syllable with a nibble.

My curry recipe will never be complete, and neither will this piece of writing. Like my forefather Walt Whitman, who was by some comedic cosmic twist born exactly 168 years before I was, I will continually fail in my endeavors to finish a draft because it will never be finished. Once this is uploaded, I will probably find some grammatical error and insist on fixing it, or I will find some point where the transition is lacking, much like the spicy zing of my last batch of curry.

Does this mean I am doomed to forever fall short of curry perfection, and does my writing stand to suffer the same fate? I’m a Master’s student. Shouldn’t I have at least touched the realm of near completion by now? When does a draft stop being a draft? Aside from one eccentric, soup-loving graduate student’s desperate attempts to avoid fast food, when does soup stop being a prelude to the main course?

Look at the chips in my teeth. They will give you a suitable answer.