How to do chili

Not pretty, but it warms you right up. (jay)

Not pretty, but it’ll warm you right up. (jby)

We’re well into the time of year when, in Minneapolis, the air outdoors will freeze your nose hairs on the first breath, and snow has lost its charm. Here in Vancouver, the only substantial snow is on the mountains across the water, but there’s ice on the trails in Stanley Park, and the trees are lacy with frozen fog. In either city, it’s the time of year for soup: elaborately spiced pho, classic chicken-noodle, and chili.

I don’t so much have a recipe for chili as I have some rules of thumb. My preferred ratios of ingredients, and some of my spicing, are informed by the recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything, but really that one confirmed a lot of what I’d already arrived at through trial and error. This probably won’t win you a state-fair cook-off, but it’ll make a big pot of hot, hearty, fragrantly spiced chili of the sort that goes perfectly with some cornbread or over rice on a cold winter night.

Here’s what you do:

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Proposed new consumer information labels for food products

Energy in Bananas Photo by Robert Fornal.

Produced with genetic engineering.

Contents derived from organisms produced by millennia of only occasionally deliberate selective breeding, and which may be so freakishly modified from their ancestral state that they would not survive five days without constant care and attention.

Product may make your tongue appear to be purple in color, but this effect is not permanent.

Useful for, at most, temporary relief of emotional distress resulting from a breakup, firing, or other traumatic life experience.

Will not taste anything like what your mother used to make.

Processed in a facility that also sells to Republicans.

Can be habit-forming if consumed periodically in a regular place, at a set time of day, or in conjunction with routine activities.

Contains no material that is truly describable using the word “marshmallow.”

May produce sensory stimuli with strong associations to formative childhood experiences, which can trigger periods of abstraction, rumination, nostalgia, regret, and panic attacks.

Made in desperation.◼

The grad student’s cookbook

Scicurious has officially posted her epic compilation of recipes by and for graduate students, i.e., compiled with budget and preparation time in mind. (I put my contribution online early.) They’re neatly sorted by meal—breakfast, lunch and snacks, dinner, desserts, and Ramen.

If you don’t understand why Ramen is a meal in itself, well, consider yourself lucky. Otherwise the range, which runs from pot roast to Pad Thai, is impressive and delicious. The lesson I take away is that (surprise!) it’s entirely possible to cook well and simply on a budget—you only need to decide to do it.

Really, my fellow graduate students, you can do better than this. Photo by pinprick.
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Grad student eating in style: Super simple marinara sauce

Edit, 25 October 2010, 0845: Added an omitted word or several in the directions.

One of the ways I’ve managed to keep my sanity through six years of graduate school is cooking. Working in the kitchen uses some of the same organizational skills as working in the lab, but at the same time it’s a nice mental break from thinking about abstract things like ecological opportunity and the grades my mammalogy lab students are likely to receive on their midterm. And I get to eat the results!

Scicurious’s ongoing series of cheap and easy recipe posts, Grad Student Eating in Style, is a tribute to the other benefit of cooking in grad school: savings. I known I’m spending less on breakfast since I started baking a batch of her amazing scones (or a loaf of banana bread) every week. When Sci invited contributions for a carnival of student-budget-friendly recipes, I knew I had to contribute. I thought I’d go with a recipe that really is a staple in my diet: a nice, basic, marinara sauce.

I like a little pasta with my sauce. Photo by jby.

The recipe

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Two (2) small onions,
  • One (1) bell pepper in whatever color you prefer,
  • At least two (2) cloves of garlic,
  • About one (1) tablespoon of olive oil,
  • Two (2) 28-ounce cans of diced tomatoes in sauce,
  • A few pinches of allspice,
  • Salt and pepper to taste, and
  • About half of one (1) bundle (bouquet? nosegay?) of fresh basil.

Chop up the onions and pepper, mince the garlic, and sauté them all together in the olive oil using a saucepan big enough to handle all the ingredients. When the veggies are nicely sautéed, add the diced tomatoes, and stir it all together. Bring everything to a low boil, and then turn down the heat to keep it simmering. Stir in the salt and pepper, and add the allspice. (The allspice is something of a secret ingredient; lots of people use sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, but allspice will do the trick just as well.) Let the sauce simmer uncovered until it cooks down to a consistency you like—usually, I let it simmer until my pasta finishes cooking. A few minutes before you take the sauce off the heat, chop up the fresh basil leaves and stir them in.

The main ingredients. Photo by jby.

I like the sauce over whole wheat pasta, with a little fresh-grated Parmesan cheese, as pictured above. The recipe makes 6-8 servings of sauce, depending on how much you like on your pasta (I like a lot).

Running the numbers

The cost of the whole recipe, if you’re shopping at the discount grocery store I patronize in north Idaho, is as follows: $0.68 for the pepper; $0.26 for the onions (about 1/6 of a 3-pound bag costing $1.58); $0.12 for the garlic (less than 1/4 of a bulb costing $0.48); $0.23 for the olive oil (1/24 of a 24-ounce bottle costing $5.46); $1.90 for the tomatoes ($0.95 per 28-ounce can), and $1.49 for the basil. (The cost for the salt, pepper, and allspice is negligible on a per-pinch basis.) Total: $4.68, or $0.69 per serving.

But wait, I hear you saying, at that same north Idaho discount grocery store I can buy a jar of Newman’s Own tomato sauce, containing five servings, for a mere $1.98, or $0.40 per serving. True enough, Dear Reader. But those five servings are half a cup apiece. Who eats only half a cup of tomato sauce on a bowl of pasta? That’s just sad. If my idea of a serving is more like one cup, that’s $0.79 per serving. And, with all due respect to Mr. Newman, his sauce doesn’t contain fresh basil.

If you add in the cost of that whole wheat pasta ($1.38 for a box containing seven servings, or $0.20 per serving), that’s $0.89 for a hearty bowlful of tomato sauce and pasta. Not too shabby! A full recipe of this sauce will refrigerate nicely for a week or so—or you can freeze it in plastic bags for long-term storage.


The great thing about this sauce is that it’s a good starting point for improvisation. Add oregano and parsley, and you’ve got a good basic pizza sauce. Throw in a handful of chopped olives and a few capers, and you’ve got puttanesca. You can also substitute something a little stronger for the bell pepper—when they’re in season at the local farmer’s market, I love to throw in spicier heirloom peppers. Or try adding cubed, sautéed eggplant to give the dish a little more heft. Or, of course, you can use a couple cups to make Sci’s Scicuriously Lazy Healthy Stuffed Cabbage even more budget-friendly and delicious.

Climate change and the food supply

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the most-cited effects of global warming is that of rising temperatures on crops – hotter average conditions should lead to warmer, drier conditions, reducing yields in the best growing areas and maybe eliminating them where conditions today are marginal. In this week’s Science, a new study puts some numbers behind that speculation [$-a], and the news is not good.

Photo by Josh Sommmers.

Assembling the results of 23 climate models, authors Battisti and Naylor compare projected temperature ranges for the coming century with the ranges observed in the previous one. By the final decade of the twenty-first century, they say, summertime high temperatures in most of the continental U.S. have a 70% probability of exceeding the hottest summer temperatures ever recorded; in Saharan Africa, much of the Middle East and central Asia, the probability is 90-100%.

To put these numbers into perspective, Battisti and Naylor go to the history books, citing an array of cases in which local high temperatures have disrupted food production, creating regional shortages that eventually impacted worldwide food markets:

By comparison, extremely high summer-averaged temperature in the former Soviet Union (USSR) in 1972 contributed to disruptions in world cereal markets and food security that remain a legacy in the minds of food policy analysts to this day. … Nominal prices for wheat — the crop most affected by the USSR weather shock — rose from $60 to $208 per metric ton in international markets between the first quarters of 1972 and 1974.

Battisti and Naylor end by calling for substantial investment in adaptation measures to prevent “a perpetual food crisis.” Increasingly, this looks like the only practical course of action – although reducing and eliminating man-made greenhouse gas emissions is critical, turning global climate around is going to be like steering an aircraft carrier, and it’s going to get pretty warm before we turn the corner.


D.S. Battisti, R.L. Naylor (2009). Historical warnings of future food insecurity with unprecedented seasonal heat Science, 323 (5911), 240-4 DOI: 10.1126/science.1164363

Corn’s not just for eating anymore

NY Times: Increasing ethanol production, spurred by government incentives, concern about global warming, and the desire for energy independence, could be starting to impact the food supply. Cross-reference to the Economist (whence the graph): the upturn in prices is the biggest since the 1970s.

I can’t say it’s surprising, given that most estimates I’ve seen conclude that ethanol couldn’t supply the world’s energy even if all the farmland on the planet were converted to biomass production. But it is surprising that it’s happened so early in the movement to drop fossil fuels. If this is the wave of the future, Americans could someday find themselves literally taking food out of the mouths of the Third World to fuel their cars. That’s a terrible thought.