Pairing the right drink with chili can stop the burn
When Old Man Winter roars into Southeast Texas, the effects on the coastal scenery can be drastic.
People wear sweaters.
Yes, the cold grip of the season transforms the familiar to something slightly more bundled and in long pants. Things called coats emerge from dark, closeted lairs and, while the early-morning frost twinkles on the palm trees, people report sightings of gloves, scarves and more rarely, the occasional ear muff. Flip-flops sometimes surround socks.
And yet in this bone-chilling, January misery, the natives grasp at seasonal joy only Texans appreciate with such gusto. Chili. The National Football League even schedules Super Bowl at this time because people tend to watch football while eating chili. Which is when things heat up, not because of who is playing in the game, but because deciding on how to make the chili can lead to uncivil war, family splits, hurt feelings and abundant profanity.
With beans, without beans, slightly sweet, lip-burning hot, with pork, with beef, maybe turkey, sans tomato, ground meat or seared chunks. Who can count what other disagreements can be pulled from one pot? It’s one of the reasons chili is eaten with a spoon, leaving sharper cutlery safely out of reach.
Just as discussing religion or politics at a large gathering is sure to produce unpleasant fireworks, discussing the definition of “real” chili in Texas is sure to produce assault. Let that fight start to boil and then ask all the experts in the room what beverage to serve; and you have apocalypse.
Let the chili wars fall where they may, but as for what to drink, be practical.
Start with the fact that chili is usually hot, hence the name. It tastes really good and then it hurts you. It’s called S&M — sip and melt.
Serve drinks that pair well with pain. Yes, that means ditch the beer.
For starters beer is filling. That means less eating. Bad choice.
And science has proven that neither beer nor water is good with spicy food.
To get technical, chilies contain something called capsaicin. When this stuff hits the taste buds, there’s a stunned pause, and then the taste buds tell the brain the idiot hands have just done something to set the mouth on fire.
Take a gulp of water or beer, and all that happens is the capsaicin oil has now been sloshed to all parts of the mouth and throat, resulting in all hell breaking loose. What one should really be drinking is something that breaks down the capsaicin, binds with it and washes it away.
For the record, the absolute best drink for doing this is milk.
Also for the record, milk is really a stupid drink to be serving at a party.
Fortunately, there are other fire-quenching choices that also will attract guests. In fact, almost any kind of drink with lots of citrus, particularly lime juice, and a good sweetener will work.
Margaritas were not invented around people living off oatmeal.
The really terrific news is that alcohol, be it bourbon, gin, vodka or scotch, not only can relieve the pain, it works as a preventative as well. Seems drunken taste buds are slow to send the brain any alarms. Actually, the alcohol forms a coating that slows the capsaicin from sticking to them.
Add in the lime juice, sugar and salt, and you have cocktails that stop the pain.
The drink menu for spicy chili is really long.
Start with something as simple as a traditional bloody mary. The acid in the tomato juice works wonderfully as a neutralizer, as does the Worcestershire or soy sauce used with it. Just be sure to cut back on the hot sauce. Hair of the dog is not a good practice where chili pain is concerned.
One Galveston resident who has tread where few brave men care to go is writer Robb Walsh. In 2015, he came out with the ultimate book on chili called “The Chili Cookbook.” It explores the history and cultural ramifications of this iconic dish and then proceeds to provide almost every conceivable recipe one would think possible.
While he doesn’t venture to suggest beverages (one chapter makes suggestions on how to host a chili party, however), he and his daughter, Katie Walsh, did create what could be the ultimate Texas chili cocktail.
They call it La Santa Muerte. Muerte is the Mexican word for dead.
“We were out picking up red jalapeños to make hot sauce a few weeks before we were going to have a Day of the Dead party,” Robb Walsh said. “While we were at the market, we found a big pile of prickly pears, so we bought a bunch. After we got home, Katie said, ‘So now what do we do with them?’”
It seemed a logical question. Recalling time he’d spent with Jamaica-raised Chef Jay McCarthy in San Antonio, Walsh began thinking of the jars of fruit the chef had marinating in alcohol behind the bar. One of the most popular drinks McCarthy made was his prickly pear margarita. They were soon off to buy tequila, combining the fruit and the alcohol in a sealed jar to let it infuse over several weeks. The tequila turned bright red.
When the time came to try the concoction, the two quickly discovered it did quite well going down in shots, but for a lengthy party, that could prove to be a problem with guest coherency. Katie suggested lime juice, but then Robb thought it needed some sweetener. He purchased some pomegranate syrup, mixed it all together. La Santa Muerte became the life of the party.
Other cocktails to consider for a hot party are punches, such as rum pineapple punch. It may sound a little tropical for a cold Texas January, but not only does it provide all the firefighting ingredients needed in a drink, those ingredients are readily available around the Texas coast. Coolers, mojitos and daiquiris are other considerations.
So as the northern wind whips through the hibiscus bushes (whose dried flowers make a delightful base for a rum cooler, by the way) and that first, steaming ladle of chili fills the bowl, toast this Texas season with a shot for the hot.
‘La Santa Muerte’ Prickly-Pear Pomegranate Cocktail
2 ounces blanco tequila infused 2 weeks
to 1 month with red or purple prickly pears
1/3 ounce (2 teaspoons) pomegranate syrup
1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
Shake well with ice — be careful or the syrup will sink to the bottom. Give it a good shake. Pour out into a cocktail glass and garnish with a lime wedge.