Private Politics Ben’s Chili Bowl Copy-Cat Chili Dogs

[Elisabeth here. I gushed so effusively about Liam, the hero of Emma Barry’s latest DC-set romance, that my husband pestered me until I let him read it. I asked if he had any thoughts he wanted to include in my review. As it turned out, he had lots of thoughts. So I just let him write it. I’ll pick back up with the recipe after his thoughts about the book.]

If you had told me two years ago that I would be an avid reader of romance novels, I would very likely not have believed you. And if you had told me, right after Elisabeth persuaded me to start reading my first romance novel (for the record, Hard Day’s Knight by Katie MacAlister) that I would be writing a romance novel review for her blog, I would have definitely been skeptical. But my wife knows me well, sometimes better than I know myself. She knows that I like a good story, even though I wasn’t much of a fiction reader when we first met. To borrow a phrase from the Most Interesting Man in the World, I don’t often read fiction, but when I do, I demand good stories and fully-rounded characters. The romances Elisabeth has steered me towards definitely meet that criteria, and today’s review, Private Politics by Emma Barry, is no exception.

Private Politics is the second of a series of romances by Barry set in contemporary Washington, DC, but it can be read as a stand-alone. The heroine, Alyse Philips, is the daughter of a wealthy New York City family who is forging her own path in DC as the star fundraiser for a non-profit. She wants to do something with her life that she finds meaningful instead of the plans she suspects her family has for her (move back to NYC, settle down with an ambitious up-and-comer alpha male, and follow the typical socialite life). But her plans start to go awry when she discovers some suspicious discrepancies in the charity’s books during an annual audit. Torn between protecting her perceived reputation (including her prospects for continued DC employment and therefore independence from her family) and the growing doubts about the legality of her current employer, she ends up working with Liam Nussbaum to get to the bottom of things.

Liam is a political blogger and budding investigative journalist. He’s an acquaintance of Alyse’s, and has been nursing a crush on her for six months. However, he considers her unattainable – she’s beautiful, successful, and desirable, all qualities he believes he lacks. From the beginning of his involvement with Alyse’s problem, Liam is torn between his natural desire to help her and help set things right, and his struggle to hide his growing desire for her. As the case gets deeper, and Liam and Alyse get more involved with the scandal and each other, she starts to key into Liam’s better qualities – his honesty, his enthusiasm, his political street-smarts – and begins to develop a crush on him as well. At which point… well, I won’t spoil the details, but it’s a romance novel. You can work out the end results.

So what made this book in particular so intriguing to me – enough so that I agreed without hesitation to write this review? First, I immediately related to Liam. He’s definitely not your typical Fabio-body-Greek-tycoon-expense-account-Casanova-charm mutant hero found in many romance novels. (Or so I’m told – Elisabeth has fed me on a steady diet of novels with quirky heroes). But he’s probably the character who has come closest thus far to being someone like me in real life – someone who doesn’t have six-pack abs, isn’t rich, and is actually somewhat in awe of the lady love of his life. I got his point of view immediately, even the bad parts (he wavers between holding himself aloof from Alyse to doing the emotional dump truck on her and back again). Which brings me to the second point – the sexual relationship between them looks (and reads) real to me. They don’t immediately go from zero to mutually-assured-simultaneous orgasms. Their first encounters are, well, messy, and it takes them some time (and conflicts) to work through that. Third, the tension ran right up to the end of the book. In fact, the conflicts in Private Politics were painful enough for me to have to take short breaks afterwards to reorient myself, but in this case it didn’t seem too forced. The final resolution fit quite well with who Liam and Alyse are shown to be in the story – and being able to craft a story that honors the personalities of the characters is a great thing.

In short, I liked Private Politics very much, and heartily recommend it. So I guess, counter to all of my prior expectations, I am a romance reviewer after all. But there is one thing I am NOT, and that is a first-class chef. So for the food porn side of the post, I will turn things back over to my lovely Elisabeth.

Hi! Elisabeth again! That was fun, huh? I can’t promise you’ll see him a lot, but I thought his perspective on this one was even better than mine. I also really loved the book. I’ve been gushing about it to anyone who would listen, actually. But to get to the recipe, before three weeks ago, I hadn’t eaten at Ben’s Chili Bowl in 10 years. It’s one of those things you do a lot in your 20s when you live in DC, but eventually you get a decent apartment with a good kitchen and you stop going out drinking five nights a week. However, thanks to this review, the staff at the new Arlington location now know me on sight. I’ve eaten there four times in two weeks.

The process behind coming up with this recipe was completely whackadoodle in case you hadn’t figured that out already. I’m obsessive and this recipe played right into that. I Googled around, hoping that someone had come up with a reasonable approximation for the chili sauce Ben’s serves on their half-smokes. I was kind of surprised when most of what I found didn’t seem to match what I was seeing and tasting. But then, I’m really not an expert at this restaurant copy-cat recipe stuff. So what you’re getting here is my best guess.

As for what I ended up with, for one thing, half-smokes are not hot dogs. They’re half beef, half pork smoked sausages. I don’t know if they’re seriously a DC thing or what, but I had to go all the way to Eastern Market to find them as my local Northern Virginia butchers were completely unhelpful. German sausages? Oh yeah. Eight types. Half-smokes? Nope. But I bet if you ask your local butcher for some kind of smoked sausage, you’ll be happy enough with the result.

Most chili consists of some combination of beef, tomato product, beef stock, chili powder, onions, garlic and other spices. My normal everyday chili has actually already made an appearance here on the blog for Molly O’Keefe’s Never Been Kissed. But the Ben’s Chili Bowl chili sauce doesn’t have beans in it. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have anything healthy in it at all. I’m pretty sure the onions are of the dried sort, the garlic is likely garlic powder and the 80/20 ground beef really isn’t optional. What the recipes I found online did get me was the addition of masa harina, which is a cornmeal product used to make corn tortillas. There’s definitely something corn-related in it because I can taste it and rubbing the sauce around on a plate yielded some undissolved lumps of it. Most grocery stores have it in the Latin American section, but if yours doesn’t, I suppose you could try using fine ground cornmeal?

As for the rest, I used this Youtube video as a jumping off point and then guessed and tasted, and tasted and guessed from there. I honestly think I came up with a pretty reasonable approximation as I tasted my version and Ben’s side-by-side. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty flavorful chili sauce, so even if it isn’t exact, it should make a decent dinner.

And when Alyse and Liam grow up, they can move out to the suburbs and make it at home instead of having to drive all the way into the city (well, except to buy the damned half-smokes).

Ben’s Chili Bowl Half-Smokes with Chili Sauce
adapted from Tom’s Test Kitchen
Serves: 6 reasonably, 4 obnoxiously

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
3 tablespoons dehydrated onion
2 teaspoons beef bouillon powder
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon red curry powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons masa harina
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 cups water, divided
1 pound ground beef (80/20)
sea salt to taste
6 mild half-smokes
6 white hot dog buns
French’s yellow mustard
1 small onion, chopped

1. Mix the first 10 ingredients together in a bowl. Whisk in 1 cup water, making sure all the spices are evenly distributed and there are no lumps.

2. Put the ground beef in a pot with remaining 2 cups water. Stir the beef and water to break up the beef into very fine bits. You don’t want any ground beef chunks. Bring to a boil.

3. Add the spice mixture, bay leaf and tomato paste, stir to combine well. Turn down the heat to low and simmer [4/25/15: uncovered] for 60-70 minutes or until chili sauce is still loose, but not liquidy with unabsorbed water. Adjust salt to taste, keeping in mind that the half-smokes are pretty salty on their own. I didn’t add any additional salt.

4. With about 15 minutes left in the cooking time, put your half-smokes on the grill. I don’t have a grill so I do what I usually do with sausage, which is to put the half-smokes in a frying pan on the stove with about 1/4 inch of water in it over medium-high heat. Cover and allow to steam for 5 minutes. Remove cover for remaining 10 minutes, allowing the water to boil off and the sausage to brown, turning once. They should be black on two sides when ready to serve.

5. Place a hot dog bun on plate. Add one sausage, about a tablespoon of chopped onion, a drizzle of plain yellow mustard and about half a cup of chili sauce. It will be very messy. Serve with ridged potato chips for scooping up extra chili sauce that falls out.

Disclosure: Private Politics was given to me by the author for review purposes. The author and I also have a friendly relationship on Twitter.

One comment

  1. Fantastic review! So nice to hear your husband's viewpoint Elisabeth and that you can share your love of romance novels with him. I am definitely going to pick this one up.

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