Chat Leftovers: Polenta, Baked Apple Woes, Winning Chili

Connecticut: Hi Kim, I have a question about polenta. Is there a way to keep it from setting up so quickly? I add it slowly while whisking, but as soon as I stop, it tightens up. And as soon as it starts to get thick, it starts bubbling like lava even though I turned the heat down. What gives?

Cornmeal getting close to becoming full-fledged polenta. (Kim O'Donnel)

Connecticut, my dear, I tried my hand at polenta earlier this year, and here’s what helped me:

Drop cornmeal into pot a handful at a time, "like rain," stirring or whisking constantly and making sure water continues to boil. When all of cornmeal is incorporated, about five minutes -- continue stirring but lower heat as cornmeal mass thickens. It will soon become fairly dense and taken on volcanic qualities as it erupts periodically. Lower heat if necessary to keep eruptions at a minimum and stir cornmeal mass regularly so all of it is exposed to the heat.

The rain imagery really does work, and it helped me make a lump-free pot of polenta. And remember, keep stirring even after you’ve added all the cornmeal! You’ll want to be diligent until the polenta starts to thicken, then you can give your arms a break. The recipe details, in entirety, are linked above. Next time, remember to breathe and think of nothing but the cornmeal!

Exploding baked apple: I made baked apples on Sunday night. Or, to be accurate, I tried to. I ended up with exploded baked apples that made a delicious thick applesauce. We enjoyed it.

If, however, I want to return to the idea of baked apples that stay intact, what do I do? I am not sure if this was the type of apple I tried (at the suggestion of the grower) or if it was the method. I loosely followed a Good Housekeeping cookbook recommendation.

A bit of cider in the 8x8 glass pan. Cut off a "hat" from the apple, cored the inside without cutting all the way through the bottom. Sprinkled with a tablespoon or so of brandy, and a relatively generous amount of cinnamon sugar. Put the hat back on. Baked, covered in foil, 1 hour at 350 as recommended.

If you don't have a suggestion for baked apples, what about sauteed slices? Looking for something appley and fall-y but not heavy (in calories or richness).

Hard to tell what you mean by “a bit of cider,” but going forward, I’d translate that into one cup of liquid to create a shallow wading pool for the fruit. I’m also thinking that next time, leave that “hat” off during baking -- it may have been the culprit, cutting off air flow and causing the apples to explode.

Here’s a tempting idea from Molly O’Neill’s “A Well-Seasoned Appetite”: Make a ginger syrup (1/2 cup water, 1 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger) in a saucepan; bring up to a boil, then reduce and simmer for five minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes, and then strain through fine-mesh sieve. Slice apples, place onto a buttered baking sheet and drizzle with ¼ cup of the ginger syrup and roast at 400 degrees, until tender, about 20 minutes.

Chili Contests: It's that time of the year that the workplace competitive spirits come out. It is the chili contests at work. What can I do to step it up in my chili and take the big prize but most important braggin' rights?

Beef or bean chili, darlin’?

I’m afraid I’m fresh out of beef chili ideas, but that’s what the readers are here for. They’ll help you out in no time..

A few years ago, I tinkered with a turkey chili made with pinto or white beans. I zipped this one up with cocoa powder, cinnamon, a chipotle chile in adobo sauce and plenty of cumin. I especially like bean chili with cocoa powder; it adds a layer of flavor complexity and it plays well with the chili powder and all the other hot stuff. But this is just one chili recipe, and I must confess it was made on the fly at the last minute. I’d love to hear your tips for a winning chili -- beef, bean or anything inbetween. The front burner is all yours.

One last thing: For those who expressed interest in gluten-free flour, I got the 411 from Catonsville, Md. baker Jules Shepard, who's working with a new packager. She reports that the flour is now ready for online ordering at Nearly Normal Kitchen and promises to update me when flour is available on D.C. area store shelves.

This week's What's Cooking transcript in entirety. And if you're hankering for more live chatting, join us Thursday, Oct. 30, at 1ET for What's Cooking Vegetarian.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 29, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Chat Leftovers
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Baked apples - don't cut off the top. Just peel a ring around the top of the apple, and core. You can core all the way through. Fill core with brown sugar, sprinkle top with cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, and top with a square of butter. Put apples in shallow baking pan, add water to cover bottom of pan by quarter of an inch. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes-hour depending on how big the apples are. No exploding apples here!

Posted by: guin36 | October 29, 2008 8:44 AM

Apple P.S. - Don't cover while baking!

Posted by: guin36 | October 29, 2008 8:45 AM

For beef chili, I like wheat instead of beans. Cook wheat berries (overnight in crockpot is good) and add to browned meat/tomatoes/seasonings etc. Most health food stores have natural whole wheat in bulk.

Posted by: more1 | October 29, 2008 10:02 AM

For the newly diagnosed Celiac - Don't to be a debbie downer but you might want to hold off on trying new GF baked items and pastas as you may not like them right away. I found it easier to switch over once I had "forgotten" what the real stuff tastes like. There are some great replacements but they are replacements. Having said that, there is better stuff now than 10 years ago and Whole Foods is really getting into the whole GF thing so you can find some great stuff there. MOM's in Arlandria also some has great stuff and a knowledgable staff. Kinnikinnick is a popular brand as is Bob's Red Mill. If you're worried about price, you can order in bulk from the gluten free mall but I would wait until you find what you like before ordering. To add to the list of websites I would also reccommend Elana's Pantry and Heidi at 101Cookbooks has a GF list. Hope this helps and good luck!

Posted by: FormerDC | October 29, 2008 11:21 AM

For chili: WaPo food editor Joe Yonan and writer Bonnie (hmm.. Bestwick?) did a chili cookoff of sorts last year. Two very different versions. Search the WaPo recipe archive (not Kim's) for chili con carne (Joe's recipe) then click the "related story" link for the other recipe. At least it will get you started. No affiliation to either writer... just remember the story from last year, and looked it up recently in my own quest for chilly-fall-chili ideas

Posted by: Agathist | October 29, 2008 1:02 PM

Good memory, Agathist! Here's the link:

and it's Bonnie Benwick.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | October 29, 2008 1:18 PM

Here is a chili recipe from Barak Obama, widely published, but found on You can use beef or turkey in this one. (It is being served at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in Dupont Circle through Election Day along w/McCain's Ribs, Biden's Pot Pie, and Palin's Sweet and Spicy Grilled Salmon). Customers really seem to like it.

Obama Family Chili Recipe


1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
Several cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground turkey or beef
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground basil
1 tablespoon chili powder
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Several tomatoes, depending on size, chopped
1 can red kidney beans
Sauté onions, green pepper and garlic in olive oil until soft.
Add ground meat and brown.
Combine spices together into a mixture, then add to ground meat.
Add red wine vinegar.
Add tomatoes and let simmer, until tomatoes cook down.
Add kidney beans and cook for a few more minutes.
Serve over white or brown rice. Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, onions and sour cream.

Posted by: efstewart | October 29, 2008 3:02 PM

Chile is not made with ground turkey, beef or chicken. Find a nice piece of chuck steak or roast about 2.5 to 3lbs. Cut into bite size pieces. Dust with a flour. Flour should be seasoned with freshly cracked black and white pepper, sea salt, garlic powder and chile powder. Heat up your 5 qt dutch oven and put in some lard. Saute beef in batches on medium heat. Let beef get a nice dark brown color on all sides before removing. Continue to saute in batches wile watching bottom of pot to make sure things arent burning. A little water will cool things down in the bottom is tending to get too dark. After beef is down saute 3 large onions cut into wedges
and 2 large red peppers in a small dice.
Chop 6 to 8 gloves of garlic the way you like them and saute with 3 tablespoons of tomato paste. Move onions and peppers so paste is sauteing on bottom of pot.Paste must change color to a rust then a dark red. Do not burn. Deglaze pan with your choice of aged dark rum or a good tequila.
Return beef to pot. Then add two 28oz cans or Muir organic whole tomatoes, 1 28oz can of tomato sauce and one good craft brewed lager beer. Drink 2 beers turn to simmer and leave lid slightly a jar. Now roast a variety of hot peppers of your choice. Chop into dice and add to put with a couple whole peppers of your choice. Open and rinse and drain and add a can of low sodium kidney beans. Add some dark brown sugar, cracked black pepper and your favorite chile powder to taste. Depending on your mood and season you may want to add a little vinegar. Let Chile simmer for approx 4 hours. Check seasoning and heat level. If appropriate remove the whole chiles you added and dice and return to pot. And then cut up whole tomatoes. Let simmer while rice or pasta is cooking. Serve over pasta or rice.

Note Chile can also be made with lamb or bambi but never poultry or ground meat of any kind.

Black powder season starts this weekend. Die Bambi and friends die! In very large numbers!

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | October 30, 2008 7:23 AM

Hi - this is a comment about making polenta and the difficulties of keeping it lump free.

Lidia Bastianich, an Italian chef and host of a TV cooking program on PBS, puts the cornmeal into the cold water at the very start of the polenta cooking. You will still have to stir your way through the cooking, but for me it was a great help avoiding the original hot water clumps. The polenta was just as delicious at the end.


Posted by: darpalo | November 1, 2008 7:09 PM

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