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Finding comfort in chili

January 26, 2015

Cincinnati chili served over pasta and covered with cheddar cheese, a combination known as a "three-way."

Chili is in my blood. It is part of who I am.

Of all the dishes my mother made for our family, it is her chili that I remember with the most fondness. Of all the dishes served for lunch at my high school, it is the chili that I remember as most edible.

It is, for me, the ultimate comfort food.

When I first moved to Texas, a new colleague who soon became a fast friend held a dinner party to welcome me. He served chili. To be specific, he served hot chili. Volcanic chili. He thought it would be entertaining to offer Yankee Boy a bowl of tongue-searing spices.

I gobbled it up and asked for more while the others were still dripping sweat over their first bowls. I was sweating, too, but not as profusely. I think. At any rate, I passed the test. I was accepted.

Chili has that kind of power, that kind of status. It is the type of food you bond over; arguments can be placated with a good bowl of chili. And in the days when roadside diners ruled the landscape, the one dish you could be certain to find everywhere was chili. And it would be good.

There may be as many ways to make chili as there are people who make it, but it is always good. Chili is impossible to make badly.

Except for a watery bowl I had once, many years ago, at a little restaurant in Ada, Mich. That stuff was awful.

For my own little chili fiesta, I started with a version of that hair-blasting stuff I had way back in Texas. I’m not as young as I once was, so I tempered it a bit and made it ever so slightly less fiery. But it’s the kind of chili that adapts easily to differing levels of heat by changing the kind of peppers you use to make it.

I used ancho peppers — they’re poblano peppers that have been roasted and dried — which have a bit of a bite to them but are still fairly mild. They can be anywhere from about half as hot as a jalapeño to almost as hot as one. Of course, the recipe also calls for a cup of jalapeño slices from a can or jar. These have been pickled, so they are not as hot as they would be when fresh, but the chili is still going to pack a fair amount of heat no matter which variety of dried pepper you use.

The recipe comes directly from Dan Puckett, the same friend who initially served me the chili and who now lives back in his hometown of San Antonio. He makes it the traditional Texas way, with small cubes of beef (or venison when he can get it), and then he mixes in an equal amount of hot sausage.

In another Texas tradition, he adds a bottle of beer. Dan didn’t specify this, but I will: Use a regular, mass-produced American beer for this chili, or possibly a Mexican beer. Those craft brews with overpowering hops or notes of raspberry marmalade will only ruin it.

Next up on my tour de chili was what may be the most perfect, non-Texan chili recipe I know. This is the one I make whenever I want to make chili that tastes like chili, or at least that tastes like the chili of my childhood, which amounts to the same thing.

Beef and Black Bean Chili is a vegetable-rich bowl that hits all the right notes. It is warm and deeply satisfying, expertly blending the heat and complexity of just the right amount of chili powder with the sweet redemption of bell peppers and mushrooms.

And not only does it taste the way chili is meant to taste, it is good for you, too. The recipe comes from Weight Watchers, though it does not have that low-cal, dieting feel at all. I usually make it with ground turkey to get the calorie count even lower, and vegetarians can easily adapt it for their needs by leaving out the beef, adding more beans and using water or vegetable stock.

Any way you make it, it’s great.

I also made a version of white chicken chili that I cook only once in a very great while because it goes straight to your arteries. You first make a roux, which is bad enough (and also good enough, if we’re talking about flavor), but then you mix in a lot of half-and-half, sour cream and shredded Monterey jack cheese.

Some people dispute that white chicken chili even qualifies as chili because it is not one of the two officially sanctioned chili colors (reddish brown and brownish red). But I disagree. It has chili powder in it, and it is a soupy liquid. To me that means it is chili. Besides, it is incredible, and this particular recipe is more incredible than most.

Which brings us to Cincinnati chili. Certain people, perhaps even most people, will deny that Cincinnati chili is chili at all. But Cincinnatians will actually look at you squarely in the face and insist that not only is it chili, it is the finest version of chili known to man.

I happen to be from Cincinnati, and I am here to tell you that Cincinnati chili represents the pinnacle of all chili varieties and is the ultimate expression of chili evolution.

Just don’t think of it as chili in the sense of any other chili you have ever known. First of all, it is less a soup than a sauce. It is spread on top of a bed of spaghetti and then topped with a mound of shredded Cheddar cheese. A thin layer of chopped sweet onions or kidney beans — or both — is spooned out by request between the meat and the cheese.

The chili, or what we Cincinnatians call chili, is seasoned with cinnamon and cloves and, often, chocolate (you won’t really taste it, but your mouth will be glad it’s there). Some versions add allspice, as does mine, and others go for nutmeg. But that’s just weird.

The story, possibly apocryphal, is that a hungry man stopped into a Cincinnati restaurant more than 90 years ago and asked for a bowl of chili. The owners, two brothers from Greece, had never heard of the stuff and asked the man to describe it. He explained it as well as he could, and then they made what they thought that sounded like — but using the spices common in Greek cooking that they were familiar with, such as cinnamon and cloves.

The result became instantly popular around the region, but really nowhere else. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I consider it the nectar of the gods.

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SAN ANTONIO CHILI

Yield: 8 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 sweet onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound lean beef or venison, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 pound hot sausage

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon cumin

1 cup canned or bottled jalapeño slices

1/2 cup chopped dried chili peppers, see note

12 ounces beer

Note: This makes quite a hot chili. I used dried ancho chiles, which are relatively mild; you can make it hotter by using hotter dried chiles.

1. Heat oil in a large pot or skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add meats and cook until browned.

2. Add the chili powder, cumin, jalapeños and dried chiles, and pour in the beer. Add just enough water to cover. Bring to a slow simmer and cover. Simmer at least an hour. If chili is too liquid, simmer awhile without the lid.

Per serving: 343 calories; 27 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 61 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 606 mg sodium; 34 mg calcium.

Recipe by Daniel Puckett, San Antonio, Texas

BEEF AND BLACK BEAN CHILI

Yield: 4 servings (2 cups each)

1/2 pound lean ground beef or ground turkey

2 onions, chopped

2 celery ribs, sliced

1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 (10-ounce) package sliced cremini (baby portobello) or white mushrooms

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans diced tomatoes

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed

3 cups water, or 1 cup water and 2 cups vegetable stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano or 2 sprigs fresh

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1. Spray a large nonstick saucepan with nonstick cooking spray and set over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain any fat.

2. Add onions, celery, bell pepper, mushrooms and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally until vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, beans, water, stock (if using), tomato paste, bay leaf, chili powder, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally until the chili is thickened, about 45 minutes.

Per serving: 278 calories; 7 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 35 mg cholesterol; 19 g protein; 39 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; 10 g fiber; 1,038 mg sodium; 132 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from "Weight Watchers Take-Out Tonight! 150+ Restaurant Favorites to Make At Home"

WHITE CHICKEN CHILI

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 stick butter, divided

2 large onions, chopped

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup chicken broth

2 cups half-and-half

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 (16-ounce) can white beans

2 (4-ounce) cans whole mild green chiles, drained and chopped

1 1/2 cups grated Monterey jack cheese

1/2 cup sour cream

1. Heat a large skillet over moderately high heat and add oil. Meanwhile, season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook the chicken until brown on one side, about 5 minutes. Turn and cook — turning occasionally to keep from burning — until done, 10 to 15 minutes more, depending on the thickness.

2. Remove chicken to a plate to cool. When cool enough to handle, shred it with your fingers and set aside.

3. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat and cook onions until softened, about 5 minutes.

4. In a heavy pot large enough to hold all the ingredients, melt remaining 6 tablespoons of butter over moderately low heat and whisk in flour. Cook this roux, whisking constantly, for 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and gradually add the broth and half-and-half, whisking all the time. Bring mixture to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until thickened. Stir in Tabasco, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Add beans, chiles, chicken and cheese; cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Add sour cream. Serve immediately or refrigerate overnight for better flavor.

Per serving (based on 10): 407 calories; 26 g fat; 14 g saturated fat; 115 mg cholesterol; 28 g protein; 17 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 586 mg sodium; 233 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted by Karen Celia Fox from The Kitchen for Exploring Foods caterers in Pasadena, Calif.

CINCINNATI CHILI

Yield: 6 servings

2 pounds ground beef

1 quart beef broth

1 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Pinch cayenne pepper

1 bay leaf

1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce

2 tablespoons cider vinegar or white vinegar

1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate

1. Place beef in a large pot and add broth. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally with a fork to separate the meat into a fine texture. Cover, lower temperature and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add onion, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, salt, allspice, cloves, cayenne pepper, bay leaf, tomato sauce, vinegar and chocolate, and mix well. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Refrigerate overnight. Skim off fat before heating and serving.

3. Serve over a bed of spaghetti, then top with shredded mild cheddar cheese. Serve oyster crackers on the side. If desired, add a layer of kidney beans and/or chopped sweet onion between the chili and the cheese.

Per serving: 346 calories; 19 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 93 mg cholesterol; 33 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 1,199 mg sodium; 80 mg calcium.

 

 


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