By Herb Gardener –
Long before iron chefs crossed tongs, Americans competed over chili. In many communities the chili cook-off remains a popular public spectacle and “stir for the cure” fundraiser. Almost everyone has an opinion about what constitutes a good and proper bowl. We can’t even agree if beans should have a path to chili citizenship.
For my last F&M entry, then, a brief appreciation of argument-starting, one-pot wonderful, and satisfying at the cellular level chili. Ask Sally in Portland and Cookie in Amarillo for their ideal chili and you are likely to receive wildly divergent descriptions. Perhaps the only common denominator in chili is, well, chile pepper. The culture has experimented with all manner of bit players—chocolate, cinnamon, red wine, kidney suet—in an alchemical search for simmering perfection. Here are a few reports from my lab.
I must disclose that I lived a few years near Cincinnati. Three-way, four-way, or five-way? No way to any chili that includes ground meat! Cut your tri-tip, chuck, pork, etc. into chunks. I prefer skirt steak.
Grind your own chili powder. New Mexico is a popular variety. Mix it with your favorite commercial brand to express and balance the earthy, citrusy, complex notes found in different peppers. I also stir in accompanying spices (chile, paprika, cumin, cayenne, Mexican oregano, thyme, and cinnamon) when sautéing the aromatics to extract maximum flavor.
Chicken stock and ale are my choices for liquids. I add a miserly amount of tomato puree to avoid crossing the Italian border. Black beans found their way into my pot as a tribute to south Florida’s cuisine. Splendid flavor and texture won their right to stay.
I make chili the day before I serve it. Perhaps because of an attention deficit or inability to defer gratification I can’t slow cook chili for hours on the stove. I’m lucky to make 45 minutes. At that point, Flora sends me to Home Depot while the cauldron cools, and she deposits the chili in the chill chest. Magic happens overnight. Trust me.
Just as I trust that you will continue to read and enjoy Flavors & More. I have said everything about, food, cooking, and their place in my life that is worth sharing. Thank you for indulging me these many issues.
The following recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian seems apropos of “the city that never sleeps”. But the New York Times contributor is on to something as espresso and chiles are New World culinary confederates that harmonize in this dish. If you are impatient, soak the beans to reduce cooking time.
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
This deep, richly flavored chili has enough caffeine to keep you awake—literally. (Bear this in mind when you’re serving it; use decaffeinated espresso if you or your guests are caffeine sensitive or reserve it for lunch or early dinner.) Serve this with rice, a stack of warm tortillas, or tortilla chips, some crumbled queso fresco or sour cream, and parsley or cilantro. Other beans you can use: Earthy-flavored beans that can stand up to the other flavors—pinto, kidney, or dried soybeans—work best.
3 tablespoons neutral oil, like grape seed or corn
2 onions, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 to 1 cup freshly brewed espresso, 1 to 2 cups brewed coffee, or 2 tablespoons espresso powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
1/4 cup dark brown sugar or 3 tablespoons molasses
One 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 pound dried black beans, washed, picked over, and soaked if you like
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the oil in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Stir in the tomato, espresso, chili powder, brown sugar, cinnamon, and beans and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the liquid bubbles steadily but not violently. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are beginning to soften, 30 to 40 minutes. Add a good pinch of salt and pepper.Continue cooking until the beans are tender, anywhere from another 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more sugar, salt, or pepper. Serve or store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.