Monday, November 24, 2008

An exploration of chili

It's gray out there today, people. Forget the runup to Thanksgiving. I need chili.

Many of you are familiar with our food fixation here at The Star. Over the years, I've kept a list of our chili recipes that have been deemed a hit. I've also squirreled away an ode or to to chili, that great chameleon of the culinary world. Although I've never had it with chameleon.....

This was originally published in 2007 as one of my food columns:

The door slides shut on the van, trapping the scent of seasonings wafting from the hot pot tucked away to the rear. By the time we reach the end of the drive, the smell is stronger. Its unmistakable warmth slips to the front and wraps around and under the seats. "Oh," he says, sniffing. "That's Nana's chili."

A deep breath. "We having that for dinner?"

This particular pot of chili is bound for the office, but its recognition to my boy carried the imprint of my childhood home. It reminds us of the classic flavors of our childhood that stay with us, always.

Take my son, for instance. He's spent almost all of his eight years eating the tomatoey, spicy, peppery chili of the South. Its smell is generic to him, and it resembles chili made in most parts of the United States. Good stuff, and I know when he's older, the "chili" trigger of his olfactory senses will likely default to tomatoes and cayenne.

Give him 10 seconds in a car, though, and his mind flips to winters past and cold nights bundled under a blanket on his grandmother's couch. The "chili" label is refined to "Nana's Chili," an elixir of cinnamon and cloves, nutmeg and ginger usually found only in the lee of the Ohio River Valley.
For me, it triggers memories of PTA chili suppers, tobacco festivals and a cramped concessions stand at the football game on Friday nights. He reacts to it the same way his sister can detect bread pudding or slow-baked sweet potatoes.

It's home, and home should smell good.

Scientists have known for years that the memory of smell is a powerful thing. We build up a storehouse of memories from an early age and pull from them the rest of our days. Some scents are utilitarian - bacon, coffee, coconut. Others, like Nana's chili, are specific to one place, one person, one point in time.

The past few years have brought an emphasis on foods cooked at home. This section each Wednesday is devoted to the art and craft of home cooking.

I'm not pushing the Rockwellian example of the family table as savior to all of society's ills. Indeed, most family dinner times reveal themselves as more Keystone Cops goofiness than Leave it to Beaver Americana. However, I know it costs less to eat at home. I know that when I make something, I have a pretty good idea of what's in it. When my husband makes something (usually a mean bowl of oatmeal), our children learn that cooks come in all shapes and sizes and sounds.

Most important, they make connections that, some day, will be precious. I've trolled some families' recipe files to find those scents that stay with us. Clip'em. Save 'em. And add them to the list of things to pass on to others.

Cincinnati Chili
This is a great recipe to clear out the spice rack. It cooks a long time, so the flavor changes, and that's also why it takes dried spices and herbs. Adjust any seasonings and spices about an hour before serving.
2 slices of bacon
2 pounds lean ground beef
1 large onion (at least 1 1/2 cups when finely chopped)
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 can kidney beans, undrained
2 (about 24 ounces each) large cans diced tomatoes, undrained
2 tablespoons chili powder (not smoked, not flavored; plain chili powder)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon dried ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed (not dill seed)
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon summer savory
1 tablespoon Italian herb seasoning
about 2 teaspoons salt
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 pound dried spaghetti
In a large skillet, cook the bacon and the chopped onion and bell pepper until the onion is clear, about 5 minutes. Put the onion and pepper into a 7-quart Crock-pot; save the bacon and drippings in the skillet. Break up the ground beef and put it in the skillet with the bacon. Brown it; drain it. Toss the bacon in the trash (or snack on it), then add the ground beef and remaining ingredients (except the spaghetti) to the Crock-pot, along with one tomato can full of water.
Put the lid on, turn it on low for about 8-10 hours. An hour before serving, turn the Crock-pot to high and taste the chili to see what it needs. Break the spaghetti in half and stir, without breaking, the noodles into the chili. Leave it on high, and they'll cook in time to serve. Stir gently to make sure the noodles don't stick together.
(Note: People who make this a lot mix all the herbs and spices together to make their own bulk chili blend and keep it in a pint jar. Then they just add at will when it's time to cook a batch. Make sure you shake well, however, because some of the spices might settle to the bottom of the jar.)

Reading that column brought to mind all the other chili variations we’ve had here at The Star over the years. Among our hit list of oft-repeated offerings:

Plain Ol’ Beef Chili
3-4 quarts beef broth
1 medium onion, chopped
2 green bell peppers, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
3 minced, fresh green chili peppers
2 minced fresh red chili peppers
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons chipotle chili powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground mustard
2 pounds ground beef, browned and drained
5 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 can black beans, pureed
1 12-ounce can of regular beer
1 14-ounce can tomato paste
1 cup masa flour
Put everything except the masa flour and tomato paste into a slow-cooker and turn to high; cook for 3 hours, then reduce to low and cook overnight. (This can cook on low anywhere from 12-14 hours.)
Just before you get ready to go to work, or about four hours before serving, turn your cooker to high. Allow heat to build for at least 30-40 minutes, then take the masa flour and mix with COLD water to make a paste that has the thickness of molasses. Whisk the paste quickly, directly into the hot chili; stir well. Add the tomato paste and mix well.
When you get to work, turn the pot on low for a bit, give it a stir, and wait for lunch.

Andy's Lazyman's Adobe Chili
Two pounds of ground beef
1 vegetable bullion cube
1 bag of rice
1 can (14 ounce) Bush's Chili Beans
1 can Rotel diced tomatoes
1 can (14 ounce) black beans
1 can (14 ounce) great northern beans
1 can (14 ounce) tomato sauce
Onion powder
Chili powder
Hot sauce
Brown ground beef and drain grease.
Pour beef, tomatoes, tomato sauce, chili beans and bullion cube into slow cooker.
Drain black beans and great northern beans. Pour all of black beans and half of northern beans into cooker. Pour about 6-10 drops of hot sauce into mixture. Stir.
Season with spice powders to taste.
Allow to cook on low for about six to eight hours, stirring periodically. About one hour prior to serving, boil rice and mix two-thirds of the rice into the cooker.
Serve with cheese and crackers.

Chocolate Chili Con Carne
3 pounds beef chuck
Freshly ground black pepper
Gray salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus 1 teaspoon
1 teaspoon ground cumin, plus 2 teaspoons
2 tablespoons chili powder, plus 2 tablespoons
Masa harina (Mexican corn flour)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup lard
4 red onions, peeled and minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 jalapeno peppers, sliced thin with seeds, stems removed
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 to 3 bottles (12 ounce) beer
1 can (12 ounce) diced tomato in juices
1 quart chicken stock
3 cans (12 ounce) black beans
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into large chunks
Cut the chuck into 3/4-inch pieces, or, to save time, have your butcher do this for you. Place the chuck in a large bowl. Season liberally with pepper (about 20 turns of the pepper grinder) and grey salt to taste- remember half of this will come off in the pan. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of the cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of the cumin and 2 tablespoons of the chili powder. Mix this well and coat the meat with the masa harina (this is a ground hominy flour common to Mexican cuisine and easily found in the Mexican food sections of many grocery stores). The flour will thicken the sauce and give it a specific, Mexican taste.
Preheat a cast iron Dutch oven on the stove over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and then the coated meat, spreading it evenly so it covers the bottom of the Dutch oven in 1 layer. Leave it alone, without turning it, so the meat will brown and caramelize. Meanwhile, add the lard. The meat has a lot of moisture in it, so a good amount of steam will come from the pan before it is caramelized. As it browns, slowly turn each piece with tongs. Once all sides are caramelized, remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a cookie sheet to cool, leaving juices in the Dutch oven to saute vegetables. Add the onions and garlic and saute for 5 minutes over medium heat until they start to caramelize and get soft. Add the jalapenos and allow to cook for 2 more minutes until soft. Add the tomato paste. Some of the same spices as were used on the meat will be used in the sauce. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of the cumin, 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, the oregano, and 2 heaping tablespoons of the chili powder. Add beer. Stir to incorporate everything. Add diced tomatoes, and stir. Then add the reserved meat. Add chicken stock. Simmer for 11/2 hours until meat is wonderfully tender. Strain juice from the black beans, add the beans to the chili pot and bring up to simmer. Then add chunks of bittersweet chocolate. Stir until it melts. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.

Ben's Chili con Carne

1 pound sirloin tips or stew meat
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 ounce) diced tomatoes
4 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons red chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper (to taste)
Dash of Tabasco sauce (to taste)
Heat the oil over medium heat in large saucepan. Brown the meat in the oil, then drain excess oil. Return meat to saucepan over medium heat and add onion, bell pepper and garlic. Simmer for 5-7 minutes or until vegetables are soft.
Place meat and vegetables in large slow cooker pot and add remaining ingredients, stirring well. Cook over low heat for 8-10 hours, or high heat for 4-5 hours. Serves about four people. Recommend double batch for large gatherings.

White Chicken Chili
2/3 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chilies
1 teaspoon ground cumin (or to taste)
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cans (15 ounces each) northern beans
1 (14-ounce) can chicken broth with roasted garlic
2 cups chopped cooked chicken breast
1 1/2 cups grated pepperjack cheese
In large soup pot, saute the onion in the olive oil until tender but not browned. Add chilies, cumin, and oregano. Continue cooking over low heat for about a minute, stirring constantly. Add beans, chicken broth, chicken and cheese. Cook over medium-low heat until cheese melts.

Three-Step Chili
2 pounds ground beef
1 can (8-ounce) tomato sauce
2 cups water
3 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
salt, to taste
2 tablespoons dry minced onions
8 to 10 bay leaves
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Brown the ground beef and drain well. Add remaining ingredients except cornstarch. Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Skim off excess grease; remove bay leaves. Add enough water to cornstarch to make paste that will pour. Add to chili; allow to thicken.