Tristan Leighton’s constantly evolving Head Space Chili taste is reflective of the fun he has had cooking it — a concept he believes everyone should embrace.
“If I’m having fun making this, it will be more delicious, because I’m in the right head space,” Leighton said. “Every recipe is a guide. This one has been improving over time. It’s been one and a half years to get this chili where is is and I’m still changing it. I’m following the idea, not the form.”
Leighton knows there are a lot of steps to this recipe, but it’s the basic techniques that are the secret. The two keys are the chili paste and the meat.
“Puree the chilies as fine as you can, puree as long as you can,” Leighton said.
He makes much of the chili paste from scratch and almost requires large batches.
He enjoys bringing it to potlucks and large gatherings.
“It’s worth making for a crowd, because everyone loves it,” Leighton said.
The secret to the chili paste is reduction. It involves first searing the meat. Then the pan is deglazed. That’s a process where the browned residue that is almost burnt to the pan surface is dissolved with the beer to be used as flavoring.
“There is a thin line between almost nothing and burnt,” Leighton said.
That paste gives the chili a rich dark color.
Among the many times he has made this recipe he has tried ground chuck, but felt the texture was wrong. There have also been other chilies and variations on the seasoning. He really prefers to go light on the salt and let the taster add more salt on serving.
Garnish the chili with sour cream and maybe a cheese. He’s tried a wide variety, but finds that many people like a standard sharp or mild cheddar.
For future iterations of his Head Space Chili he is considering pork, like maybe a pork shoulder and possibly doing the deglazing with wine.
Leighton came to Bowling Green from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to get his master’s degree in pop culture studies, for which he is currently finishing his thesis on the intersection of heavy metal music and punk.
Leighton has spent a lifetime seriously considering food.
He got into cooking in the third grade, when he started watching cooking shows on local PBS television. He eventually went to what is now called the Lincoln Culinary Institute in Connecticut. He took advanced courses with an emphasis on French technique, but he gravitated toward several types of Asian foods. He then worked at a number of restaurants in Ann Arbor.
He recommends that a cook should learn ingredients, but also techniques and then “pull yourself into the moment.”
Add to that concept the idea of how to taste food and identify salt, fat and acidity, like Alton Brown. He’s one of Leighton’s favorite cooking personalities.
“If it’s missing something, it’s usually salt or an acid,” Leighton said.