Thursday, July 23, 2020

Vacation fun: Making traditional Texas chili con carne

I’m on vacation at home this week, and one afternoon when it was especially gray (because San Francisco in July) I decided to cook up some chili con carne.  The recipe that I use is a modification of one that I can no longer find online, written by Reece Lagnuas back when he was a butcher in Austin.  I documented this cook because the recipe is such a great rendition of the traditional Texas chili that I grew up eating that I thought it should be out there for everyone to try.  And this batch turned out to be especially good!

Your reward at the end of this journey
Be forewarned, this dish requires a pretty substantial time commitment - from start of prep until the dish was cooking it took me about 90 minutes.  Once it’s cooking you just need to check it occasionally to make sure it’s simmering and not cooking too hard - it should be ready to eat within 2-3 hours.  Perfect activity for a cool, gray vacation afternoon!

Also - I've never written a recipe before, I apologize in advance for how verbose it is...


  • Meat: I hope it goes without saying that you should only cook with humanely raised meat.  The meat for this cook came from our neighborhood butcher shop, Avedanos, which supports local family farms.  
    • ~ 2.5 pounds pork shoulder
    • ~ 2.5 pounds brisket (preferablly from the fattier end, known variously as the point or deckle)
    • if you have your own meat grinder then buy them whole, otherwise ask your butcher to grind them as coarsely as possible 
  • 1 large onion - diced relatively small
  • fresh chiles
    • 2 red bell peppers
    • 2 poblano peppers
    • 2 large jalapeno peppers
  • dried chiles - I use a varying mix, this time it was:
    • 2 chile ancho
    • 3 dried pasilla
    • 2 chile guajillo
  • seasonings: you can mix all of these together as they will be added at the same time
    • salt (start with 1 tbs, we like it salty so usually add more to taste later in the cook)
    • ground black pepper (1 tsp)
    • cayenne pepper (if you want it spicy - for this cook, I added about 1/3 tsp of Penzey’s Black & Red which is a mix of black and cayenne pepper - the end result had just a very tiny bit of spicy kick)
    • Chili Powder (3 tbs)
    • Ground cumin seed (2 tsp)
    • Garlic powder (1 tbs)
    • Onion Powder (1 tbs)


Roast the fresh peppers.  The goal here is to char the skins so that they come off easily after steaming.  I used my outdoor gas grill, but you can also do this directly over the burner of a gas range.  If you don’t have gas then it sounds like you can also use an electric range or toaster oven.  You want the skins to be charred black over as much of the pepper as possible, so you will need to turn them regularly; the larger peppers will probably take much longer than the small ones.  Once they are nicely charred, then put them in a loosely sealed container to steam for at least 20 minutes.

Roasting the fresh chiles on the backyard gas grill

Roast and rehydrate the dried chiles.  This will require a hot pan (I used the same Dutch oven that I will use to cook the chili) and about a quart of boiling water.  Heat the pan on high and toss in the chiles, turning them regularly to prevent burning.  When they start to smell roasty, place them in a heatproof bowl for soaking.  Before you soak them, use some scissors to cut small holes in the side of each chili - this will make it easier to get any air out and submerge the chiles fully. After cutting the holes, pour the boiling water over the chilis.  

Roasting the dried chiles

Prepare the meat.  If your meat was ground by your butcher then you can skip this step.  I like to grind the meat myself, since butchers often need time to set up their grinder for a coarse grind.  I use the meat grinder attachment for our KitchenAid mixer.  When grinding meat, it’s important for both the meat and grinder to be as cold as possible, so I put both of them in the freezer for about an hour before grinding the meat.  Chop the meat into strips or chunks that are small enough to fit in the grinder feed; I like to leave most of the fat on and remove it later during the cook, but sometimes I will trim away large fat pieces.

Action shot - grinding the brisket

Clean and chop the chiles.  Remove the skins from the fresh chilis (they should come off easily after steaming), and also remove the stem, seeds, and membranes inside the chili.  Don’t wash them!  For the dried chiles, try to remove as much of the seeds and membrane as possible (don’t worry about the skins).  Then chop them until they are nearing the consistency of a paste; this generally takes a lot of work.
Dried chiles after roasting
Another action shot - chopping chiles

Time to start cooking!  Add about 2 Tbs of oil to the large pot, and cook the onions on relatively high heat until they are just starting to brown, stirring constanly.

Blooming the spices - the smell is amazing
Add the spice mixture once the onions are starting to brown, and stir constantly for a minute or two. You should smell the spices bloom, especially the cumin seed.

Browning the meat. After blooming the spices, add the meat and cook for several minutes until it is starting to brown. You should be able to smell the meat browning and start to see fat from the meat rendering out in the pan. 

Add the chili paste and mix into the meat. Then add just enough water to cover the meat; for this cook it was about 6 cups.

About 3 hours in - almost done!

Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  The chili will then cook for at least 2 hours and preferably 3 or more hours; for this cook, it went a bit more than 3 hours.

Skim extra grease.  A couple of hours into the cook, there will likely be a substantial amount of grease on the top of the chili.  I like to remove some of this before serving, so that the chili isn’t too greasy. There are probably fancy ways to do this, but I simply use a Chinese soup spoon to skim the fat off of the top.  This time around I ended removing about 1.5 cups of fat.

When you are ready to eat, taste the chili and add salt as needed to taste.

Enjoy!  I don’t generally like adulterating my chili with any additions, but this time I tried it with a bit of guacamole on the side, and it was really good.

This recipe makes a lot of food — we usually have enough left over from this recipe for two additional meals (for two people).  The chili keeps well in the freezer for at least a month, though it rarely lasts that long around here...

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Friday, January 24, 2020

Talking remotely: Lessons learned so far

Since making my commitment to reduce air travel for academic purposes, I’ve been giving a lot more remote talks.  In the last 5 months I have given 10 remote talks - many thanks to those who have agreed to host me virtually rather than in person:

  • National Academies Data Science in the Cloud workshop, Washington, DC
  • National Academies Brain Health Across the Lifespan workshop, Washington, DC
  • Cognitive Science Colloquium, Institut d'Etudes Cognitives, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France.
  • Johns Hopkins University Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Distinguished Lecturer Series, Baltimore, MD
  • NIMH  Talk Series on Machine Learning in Brain Imaging, Neuroscience, and Psychology, Bethesda, MD
  • Santa Fe Institute, Cognitive Regime Shift meeting, Santa Fe, NM
  • Montreal Neurological Institute, Open Science Symposium, Montreal
  • Johns Hopkins University Dept. of Biostatistics,  Bethesda, MD
  • IBI Data Standards and Sharing Working Group, Tokyo, Japan
  • Max Planck School of Cognition, Berlin, Germany
Some of these were already bunched together so they wouldn’t have required separate flights, but even considering that, my back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that these flights would have resulted almost 7 tons of CO2 being generated (as estimated using  Not to mention lots of physiological stress from jet lag, and travel costs to be borne by my hosts. So in many ways it’s been a huge win for everyone.

An important issue, however, is what the experience was like, both for my hosts and the attendees and for myself.  The visits varied from talks with a short Q&A session, to extended visits in which my talk was followed by individual meetings with researchers. For me the experience has been very positive — certainly not as good as being there in some ways, but still very satisfying.  The least satisfying experience for me as a speaker has been in situations where I give a talk without time for Q&A afterwards.  I think that my hosts have also largely found it to be a positive experience, at least from the feedback that I’ve received. In one case, I was the pilot test for hosting extended virtual visits, and afterwards they told me that the experience had convinced them to do it regularly.  

Going through these talks has taught me a few lessons about how to improve the experience, both for the speaker and for the audience.
  1. Always set up a time with the host to test things out in advance in the actual venue, preferably at least a few days before the talk.
  2. On the day of the talk, arrange to meet the host online at least 15 minutes before the scheduled talk time.  Even when everything is well oiled, problems can arise, and you don’t want to be debugging them in front of an audience.
  3. Give your host your cell phone number, and keep your phone handy so that they have an alternate way to contact you if necessary. 
  4. In general I think it’s good for a virtual talk to be a bit shorter than a regular talk, simply because it’s easier for people to fade off when you are not present to look them in the eye.  Erring on the side of going short rather than long is also a good general principle — As an audience member I have rarely been upset when a talk went shorter than expected, and it gives more time for questions, which are usually the most interesting part anyway.
  5. For longer talks (over an hour), give the audience a short intermission.  For example, for my talk to the Max Planck School of Cognition (a 90 min talk with 30 mins for questions), I asked the audience to stand up and stretch out about half way through, which they seemed to appreciate.
I also have several suggestions for hosts of virtual visits:
  1. *Please* use a standard commercial conferencing system (like Zoom or Webex) rather than a home-grown system. Especially one that requires me to install special software! Having to install new software or log into a new system is just another potential point of failure for the talk. In general I have had the best experiences when using Zoom or Skype, but I’m sure there are other systems that are also good.  
  2. As a speaker I particularly like being able to see a chat window on my screen as I’m talking, so that people can post questions during the talk.  This works well with systems like Zoom, but often doesn’t exist at all in home-grown systems. 
  3. Please provide a camera so that the speaker can see the audience.  Talking without seeing the audience is much less pleasant and also makes it impossible to tell if people are disengaged, or if there is an unexpected problem with the A/V system.  
  4. Make clear to the audience up front how questions will work.  I prefer having them submitted by chat window, but if they are going to be spoken, then there should be microphones explicitly for the question, and these should be tested beforehand to make sure that the speaker can hear them.
  5. For extended visits, it has worked well to have a single Zoom room for the entire day, which individuals come into or out of throughout the day for their scheduled meetings.  Please remember that people sitting in front a computer have biological needs just like people who are physically present, so schedule regular bio-breaks during the day.
  6. For events that are more discussion based, it's important to have multiple microphones spread around the room so that the virtual attendees can hear what is being said.  If someone is going to be writing on a whiteboard, it's also important to have a camera on the board.
Please leave other thoughts or suggestions in the comments below!