Tyler Florence’s Hot Dog Chili (Or, When Bad Recipes Happen To Good People)
Thursday, October 14th, 2010
In statistics, we often talk about “Type I vs. Type II Errors” – unimaginative geek-speak for “false positives” and “false negatives”, respectively – but one could just as properly label these concepts “errors of commission vs. errors of omission“. A conundrum endemic to parenting and modern life in general, and for which the home kitchen provides an object lesson: When preparing a recipe for the first time, particularly one from a celebrity chef like Tyler Florence, do I trust my instincts and override the recipe whenever something seems amiss? Or, do I remain humble, follow it to the letter, and hope for the best?
The inherent conflict between humility and judgment, whether in the laboratory or the kitchen, proffers no solutions, only trade-offs, because it is a mathematical certainty that one cannot have it both ways: The less likely you are to make one sort of error, the more likely you are to make the other. Think of it as a sort of no-free-lunch paradigm for stats monkeys, and a dilemma which all of us confront every day: To which school should we send the kids? Should our retirement account be in stocks or bonds? Will it be faster to take the highway or the back roads? Does this dish need more seasoning? I would even argue that this basic trade-off girds principles as wide-ranging as the Hippocratic Oath, the Libertarian Party’s economic platform, and most of the world’s approach to family planning, but then I’d get lots of snarky emails about my presumed politics, so perhaps better to let those particular dogs lie unperturbed.
The whole issue is on my mind today because I just made Hot Dog Chili – not a preparation I’m overly familiar with, unless we’re counting the many past instances of inebriated consumption – from a recipe provided by Tyler Florence. Being unfamiliar with the dish, I went with humility – that is, I accepted the risk of Type I errors in order to avoid Type IIs – and I paid for it, because I’d have been hard-pressed to make a mistake worse than the recipe itself.
Now, to be fair – both to Mr Florence and my decision to trust him – the thing about Hot Dog Chili is that it’s not meant to be chili per se: Hot Dog Chili derives from the kitchens of places like Pink’s and Tommy’s down in Hollywood, and shares little family resemblance with the competition-style chilis of Texas. Hot Dog Chili does not depend on tomatoes, peppers, or beans; includes neither cubes of brisket nor heaping handfuls of spice; and must always have a very particular texture – not one you’d want to eat very often, truth be told – of a shirt-and-tie-destroying, finger-nail-staining, heart-stopping mouthful of pasty, fatty, Elmers-esque loveliness, best enjoyed very late at night with a stomach full of hooch. As questionable as they may sound, the mild flavor and sludge-like consistency of Hot Dog Chili are absolutely essential for a proper chili dog, so I dutifully banked on humility and Mr Florence’s recipe to tow me in from a lonely reef of ignorance to a tropical paradise of chili dog perfection; unfortunately, I was wrong to do so, because the recipe is a shipwreck. But bitching solves nothing, and I still want my chili dog, so herewith my list of gripes and suggested corrections, assuming an overall preparation following his lines:
- The Problem: Lean ground beef is contra-indicated, because Hot Dog Chili is in many respects a ragu. Furthermore, the notion of using lean beef, and then cooking it in a whopping 1/4 cup of oil just strikes me as counter-productive. Too much onion. The fix: Get a pound of high quality, flavorful, freshly ground grass-fed beef at least 20% fat; I’ll use my go-to slider material, a blend of chuck, brisket and sirloin, all grass-fed and ground-to-order by Rian, my go-to butcher at my go-to butcher’s, Willowside Meats & Sausage Co. I would also cut the onion by half, and I’d cook it in 1-2 tablespoons of canola or peanut oil.
- The Problem: A full cup of ketchup is obscene, unless you want your chili sweet, sticky, and cloying, tasting of little more than a concentrated paste of Heinz. Further, neither a teaspoon of mustard nor a smattering of chili powder is nearly enough. The Fix: Use only 1/2 cup of Heinz ketchup, at least a tablespoon of French’s mustard, at;east a tablespoon of paprika and at least a teaspoon of ground cumin. The ranges are provided because I’ve only established the lower bound in my limited experiments thus far, but suspect more is required; I also suspect you really want to reserve some of the spices and add them toward the end, as you would a staged spice-dump for a more classic chili, because their flavors tend to cook out after all that time on the heat.
- The Problem: Without water or stock, the chili dries out too quickly and never has a chance to braise down into its proper ragu-like consistency, particularly in the suggested amount of time. The Fix: Add a cup of water (or, better, rich beef stock) and allow it to cook for at least another hour (two would be better), until almost dry and the fat begins to separate; if it dries out while cooking, just add more water/stock.
Since I began this post, the obvious finally occurred to me, and the number of blogs purporting to have the “secret recipe” of either Pink’s or Tommy’s are is legion (for instance, here and here). Lots of small differences, and one big one: The use of a roux to bind the sauce, which I am almost certain must be part of the real deal. I actually like some of what Mr Florence is doing – including the use of ketchup and mustard and a very short list of spices – so I”m going to play around with some combination of his approach and the purported secrets from the kitchen’s of Hollywood’s most famous dives.