Real vegetarian food, served in an imaginary world...

Wednesday 3 May 2017

SWAN SONG – A Meal for Johnny Cash

Zelda had planned to test just three recipes for the Columbo Cookbook project by Jenny at Silver Screen Suppers (there is still one to come) but then she saw that there was a Johnny Cash one on offer and couldn’t resist trying it too. Johnny made it with beef or venison, so this is an ‘extra’ test recipe, adapted for vegetarians.
The concerts Johnny Cash did at Folsom and San Quentin are amazing.

The Context
I have to declare an interest.
 I just LOVE Johnny Cash and all his music. 
In 1974 he starred as gospel singer Tommy Brown in the Columbo episode Swan Song.

The Recipe and my Variations
The recipe is an adaptation of Johnny’s own, as written down by his son John Carter Cash and seen in Jenny's post here.
My job was to make it vegetarian. I intended to do this twice, once with just the veg and the again with meat substitutes, but I combined the two.
I looked at all sorts of variations for the steak element but felt that it all came down to having meaty chunks amongst the beans and mince, so I tried it with the ‘common or garden’ veggie burgers and it worked beautifully. Basically the ‘meaty’ taste would be lost amongst the spices, anyway.
I halved ingredients where possible or chose smaller versions (i.e. 1 small onion).
Cooking this in April we had no new peppers ready but plenty of home-grown peppers from last year in the freezer.
The ¼ cup of chilli powder seemed excessive. I used 1tsp and it was quite hot enough, thank you.
I also combined the cup/ gram/ tablespoon measurements of the other spices, linking them all into the neat little ‘spoon system’.
I used dried herbs (sage, oregano) although in the summer they would be fresh.
It’s not easy to get small cans of beans in the UK so I bought full ones and just used half. (Later I used the rest to make bean burgers.)
The beer caused a great deal of discussion between someone who knows nothing about it and someone who knows an awful lot. 
In the end, we thought it would be best to look for something American and my Man in Black  was quite impressed with what I found (taste-wise) Price-wise it gave him the Johnny Cash sneer!
Although it says 'lager' it was more like a bitter (or so I am told). 
I had to reorder some of the method and ingredients because veggie mince is dry and needs moisture and flavour enhancements. This meant adding a bit of stock, but it also meant that I could forgo the ‘fry, set aside and drain fat off’ stage.
I fried the peppers a bit at the start to make them softer but didn’t keep raw onion and garlic to add part-way through.
Because some beans had to be drained and some not, I specified this in the ingredients list.

225g vegetarian mince
2 vegetarian burgers
1 small onion, chopped finely
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp rapeseed oil
1 large tin (400g) chopped tomatoes
200ml vegetable stock
½ green pepper, chopped
½ red pepper, chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, deseeded and chopped very small
1 cayenne pepper, deseeded and chopped
2tsp chilli seasoning
Salt and black pepper
1tsp chilli powder
1tsp cumin
1tsp sage
1tsp oregano
½ tbsp cayenne pepper
½ 400g can black beans, drained and rinsed
½ 400g can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
½ 400g can kidney beans in chilli sauce
½ 400g can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
170ml beer (this is half a bottle) – Dave drank the rest
12g sugar
Handful of self-raising cornmeal (made from 60g cornflour 20g plain flour, 1tsp baking powder, pinch of salt) 

If the veggie burgers are frozen, defrost them first (just enough to be able to chop them into chunks).
Then, heat the oil in a pan and begin to cook the onion and peppers.
Then add the veggie burgers and fry until they are browned.
Add the garlic and stir until it has started to turn golden.
Pour in the tomatoes and add the veggie mince.
Pour over 200ml vegetable stock, mix well and heat to a brisk simmer.
Then add the herbs and spices: chilli seasoning, salt and pepper, chilli powder, cumin, sage, oregano and cayenne pepper (This is apparently, the order according to Johnny.) Taste and adjust spicing if necessary.
Add the beans to the mixture and adjust the spicing again.
When it is to your liking, pour in the beer and add the sugar.
Simmer for at least 30 minutes.
Uncover, add a handful of the cornmeal and stir it in.

Ooh this made a lot of chilli! I put it in a big bowl and gave us individual bowls to put spoonfuls in. We ate it with crackers (which were very useful to counteract some of the heat).

The Verdict
I had a bit of a panic when I looked at the ingredient list but it is very much a ‘chuck it in’ recipe which made it really easy after all.
My resident Man it Black thought that it was about the right level of spiciness, but to me it ‘burned, burned, burned’ and a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt would have been a welcome addition to the table.
Just like Jenny, I halved Johnny’s original ingredients and it would definitely serve six. Dave and I ate it on the evening I cooked it, then we gave a portion away and froze the rest.

The Experience
This was fantastic fun. I played Johnny Cash songs as I cooked and we loved the episode. I insisted on being called ‘June’ all evening, too.

Johnny can come for chilli at any time...


  1. Woweee Helen, this is JUST BRILLIANT - thanks so much for taking the time to try this out, and write it out so beautifully - can I put it in the Columbo cookbook pretty please?! Lucky the person who got given a portion of this - yum, yum!

    1. Of course you can use it - I wouldn't have made it in the first place if not for your project. The other portion went to Dave's sister as a thank you for lending me the DVDs. As a massive Columbo fan she was expecting chilli to crop up sooner or later. She also gave it the seal of approval. I am loving the test cooking!