The Burger Lab: The Pueblo Slopper (And How To Make Pueblo Green Chili)
"In fact, I really can't think of any goop-covered-bread-based dish that I don't like."
I've always been a fan of pouring tasty goop over bread-like substances, and indeed I've long held the belief that there are five truly great goop-on-bread dishes in the world: French onion soup over gruyere-covered croutons. Middle-school cafeteria sloppy Joes. Pappa al Pomodoro the tomatoes are perfectly ripe and the bread perfectly Italian. Buttery biscuits doused in salty, creamy sausage gravy (or perhaps if you come from a military background, sh*t on a shingle would be your goop-on-bread of choice). And of course, there's pizza—my favorite part is that moist, slightly doughy interface where the sauce the crust meet.
In fact, I really can't think of any goop-on-bread dish that I don't like.
A few months back when I received an email from the California Kiwifruit Commission asking me if I wanted a free kiwifruit slooper. I'm not the kind of guy to look a gift slooper in the mouth, but I am the kind who likes to know what kind of kiwi-related apparatus he's getting himself into, and, as it turns out, the kind who accidentally swaps the occasional "p" for an "o" when typing into the Gopgle search bar.
Long story short: A "slooper" is something best not Googled (seriously), but a slopper, on the other hand, is an entirely new breed of goop-on-bread. A breed that I knew would haunt my dreams until I got to try one.
There Can Be Only One
Created at either Gray's Coors Tavern or the Star Bar* in Pueblo, Colorado, some 40-odd years ago, the original slopper consists of two open-faced cheeseburgers placed in a bowl, with a ladleful of Pueblo green chili smothering them and a sprinkle of raw onions.
*It's origin is contentious, and is a fight not worth fighting
It looks a little something like this:
Well fast-forward to the 1990s to a little south-of-the-river establishment called the Sunset Inn, and your slop factor gets increased. There, instead of the open-faced sandwich, and entire closed hamburger is placed in a bowl, topped with shredded cheese, then doused with hot green chili.
As the chili hits the cheese, it melts into a gooey veil that saturates the top and bottom bun. Obviously, a fork and knife are recommended.
I know which style of slopper I wanted to recreate.
The real question, of course, is this. It's all well and good to read about these things and marvel at their ingenuity online—but it's an entirely different thing to try and make one for yourself without ever actually having tried the original. The cheeseburger part I can imagine easily enough, but what about this odd Pueblo green chili? I mean, who makes a green chili that isn't even green?
A little research revealed that just like in parts of New Mexico, green chili is to Pueblo what Sriracha is to hipsters or what mayonnaise is to the French: They put that s%*t on everything. Made by cooking down roasted mirasol chili peppers along with pork, onions, and tomato (where it gets its red color from), it's more soupy and sauce-like than any chili I know, getting a bit of body from a blond oil and flour roux. It's the kind of condiment chili you imagine being awesome on French fries (hold the mayo).
Interesting information aside, I still had no idea what the stuff tastes like.
Full credit in the story, reimbursement of all costs, plus $20 CASH to anyone who can ship me a sample of the green chile used for the Slopper from Gray's Coors Tavern or the Star Bar in Pueblo, CO!
You see, as fun as active investigative research is, I've always preferred passive research. That's the kind where you just sit back and let the research come to you.
Not so lucky this time around. The most useful response I got was this: "Hell, I'd send you the chile, but it'd be the wrong one...how much you paying for the wrong chile?"
Time for plan B: rely on government contacts.
I sent an inquiry out to the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce asking them for advice on how to procure some of their famous Pueblo green chili. Luckily, the Pueblo Chamber is one of the most well-run, friendliest government institutions in the Southwest, which puts it high in the running for friendliest worldwide. Within days of emailing I got the following response from Communications Director Juls Bayi: "I can send out some Green Chili & some Pueblo Chile. Is it OK if I get to it early next week?"
Why yes, Juls—next week would do nicely!
A few days later, we received an unmarked package in the mail.
Turns out that not only had Juls gone out of his way to visit two separate Pueblo restaurants (Romero's Cafe and Papa Jose's Union Cafe, both of which were packed up in a thoughtful double layer of Ziplock bags), but he'd also included a couple pounds of roasted Mira Sols. Thanks Juls!
Note to self: Next time I'm working on a story about beef, send email to every TX Chamber of Commerce to request FedEx of live cattle. See if they comply.
We fried up a couple burgers in the office, topped them with shredded cheese, and ladled on the chili. My first bite of Slopper was pretty glorious. Soft hamburger bun soaking in the mildly spicy, pork-scented chili until it achieves an almost custard-like texture, with the burger patty offering just enough textural contrast to keep things interesting.
Despite the fact that both chilis were about the same color and consistency, their flavor was quite distinct, with the Papa Jose's having a strong spicy bite and a fruitier, more complex chili flavor, while the Romero's was porkier, and smoother. I wouldn't say one was better than the other per se (they were both outstanding for this East Coast palate), tasting them side by side gave me one vital message: with Pueblo green chili, there's room for interpretation. That's good news for me, since it means that I need have no shame in creating my own version of the dish, piece by piece.
There's no denying that the Mira Sols have a distinct flavor. Bright and grassy with a slightly bitter edge, a bit of heat, and a strong smokiness imparted by roasting them over an open wood fire, they're similar to Hatch chilis, but with a fruitier complexity. Luckily, I'd recently come up with a reasonable substitute for Hatch chilis using a combination of poblanos, cubanelles, and jalapeños. As for that added fruitiness? I found that by soaking just a couple tablespoons of raisins in boiling water, puréeing them, and incorporating them into the stew, I got the basic flavor I was looking for.
All that was left is getting the mix appropriately smoky. Charring the peppers over an open gas flame or under the broiler gets them charred, but it's nothing like the smokiness you get from a real wood fire. Short of roasting the peppers over an outdoor grill (a great option in the summer!), I had to find another way. My answer? Liquid smoke.
I know, I know—the stuff is frowned upon, and when used with impunity, it truly is nasty stuff. But here's the truth: there's nothing artificial about liquid smoke.
Here's how real smoke flavor gets into food when you cook over an open fire. As moist wood burns, water vapor escapes into the atmosphere carrying with it a whole host of water-soluble flavorful compounds. As soon as this vapor hits a cool hunk of meat (or a chili pepper, as the case may be), it condenses, depositing its flavor onto the surface of the food being smoked. From there, it eventually works its way into the food.
High quality liquid smoke, is made in nearly the exact same matter. Moist wood is burned in a controlled environment. The smoky varpor coming off of it is passed through a series of condensers, causing the vapor to turn to liquid, trapping the flavorful compounds within. This liquid is then collected and bottled.
It's true, some varieties contain sugar, vinegar, and/or artificial flavorings, but the good brands (like Wright's, for example, contain nothing but smoke and water. And what's wrong with that?
As long as it's used in moderation, it can add smokiness to your chili without overwhelming.
Do you own a pressure cooker?
I do, and I like it.
Not only is it great for making rich, flavorful stock in record time (chicken stock in 45 minutes? Yes, please!), it's also the ideal vessel for tenderizing tough pieces of meat.
Here's how they work: As water is heated, its individual molecules start to jump around more and more rapidly, trying to escape into the atmosphere. The pressure of these molecules pushing up off the surface of the water is called vapor pressure. At the same time, air in the atmosphere is pushing down on the water. This is atmospheric pressure. Eventually, as the water gets hotter, the vapor pressure becomes greater than the atmospheric pressure. Like a fence being knocked down, the water molecules then rapidly escape into the atmosphere. This is what's happening when water comes to a boil (read here for more about boiling water).
At sea level, this occurs when the water is 212°F, which means that it's nearly impossible to raise the temperature of water (or anything cooking in it) above this temperature.
So, the lower the atmospheric pressure, the less energy the water needs to come to a boil. That's why water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes where the air is thinner (thinner air means less air molecules, which means lower atmospheric pressure). Conversely, inside a pressure cooker, as the air inside heats up, it expands and ends up exerting far beyond normal atmospheric pressure onto the water, which means that the water needs more energy to escape. Inside the average pressure cooker—which is calibrated to maintain a pressure of around 15 pounds per square inch beyond normal atmospheric pressure—water won't boil until much higher: around 250°F or so.
What does this mean for your food? Well, the connective tissue inside tough pieces of meat (like, say, a pork shoulder) breaks down into gelatin when heated. The higher the temperature, the faster this breakdown takes place.
Here's a picture of two pieces of pork. The first was cooked in a regular pot for 10 minutes, while the second was cooked in a pressure cooker for 10 minutes.
As you can see, the regular boiled pork is still tough, while the pressure-cooked pork easily breaks into small pieces. Not only that, but the pressure-cooked pork has significantly more moisture remaining. This is because under normal pressure, when meat fibers are heated, they contract, squeezing out their juices. However, when the pressure is high enough, the force keeping the liquids inside the meat (the atmospheric pressure) is great enough to counter the forces pushing the juices out (the meat fibers contracting).
The result is that with pressure-cooked meat, you can soften tough connective tissue in record time while still maintaining a relatively moist interior! (You can, of course, still make a great chili even without the pressure cooker—it just takes a bit more time).
With the hard part out of the way, all that was left is tweaking the remaining ingredients. Onions and garlic were a given (incidentally, make sure you add the garlic a few minutes after the onions have already cooked, or you end up with burnt garlic stuck to your pan), as was tomato and a few pinches of oregano. I found that the best way to get the texture right was to cook the roux in a separate pan and add it to the chili only after it had simmered down, adding just enough to achieve the desired texture.
And how do you know it's the right texture?
When it bubbles and simmers lazily like you'd imagine witch's brew to do, you're there.
Of course, you can eat the chili plain.
There's no shame in that. Now that I have a few dozen quarts of this stuff under my belt, It's hard to think of enough things to put it on. French fries, nachos, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, hot dogs, whatever. I feel like a tool freak who just got a new power sander and can't find enough things that need sanding.
That said, I think our original intention today was to get sloppy.*
*I tried that very line on my wife once. It didn't work as planned.
So without further ado, here it is:
And by the way, now that you've all gone and Googled "slooper," don't say I didn't warn you.