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Published: Monday, 1/17/2011

Chili: The quintessential American dish

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

I have seen rivers of chili.

I have seen chili flow like the purifying Ganges through vast ascending empires. I have seen chili slide like the dusky Nile past timeless ancient monuments of towering civilization. I have seen chili course across wide continents like the Amazon, mysterious and unknowable. I have seen chili roll like the Mississippi through the lyrical heart of a young country, bringing the boundless promise of an unwritten future.

My soul has grown deep like a river of chili.

Hash-slinging waitresses at diners used to call chili "a bowl o' red," which has a certain poetry of its own too.

Chili is great at any time of the year, but it is especially good now, when it can steam up the windows of your kitchen and be eaten in front of a roaring fire. And with the Super Bowl fast approaching, the official state food of Texas — and unofficial national food of Mexico — becomes the all-but-officially-recognized national food of the United States, at least for a day.

If there is anything that goes better with football and beer than chili, I have yet to hear of it.

American chili can generally be broken down into five different varieties. You have Texas chili, which Texans will tell you is the only original chili; Cincinnati chili, which chili aficionados will tell you isn't really chili at all; New Mexico chili, which non-New Mexicans won't be able to tell you anything about because it burned off all their taste buds; California-style chili, which is full of healthy ingredients and is thus unsuitable for football; and chili from everywhere else, which is just like Texas chili, only less so.

Typically, though by no means always, Texans make chili with chunks of beef, rather than ground beef — and they use beef suet whenever possible, which it isn't much anymore. When venison is available, it often goes in the pot instead; LBJ, for one, is said to have preferred venison to beef, and you don't get much more professionally Texan than that. Rattlesnake meat is also sometimes used, less for flavor (though it isn't bad at all) than the sheer cussedness of being able to say you make your chili with rattlesnake.

And Texans take it as a matter of both pride and principle that they don't put beans in their chili, except a lot of them do. And for some good reasons: Beans add a savory undertone to the flavor, along with extra protein, and they make it more filling. So beans are by no means required in Texas chili, and are often looked down upon by purists, but they couldn't hurt.

Despite Texas' claim to chili ownership, the city with the most chili parlors per capita is … Cincinnati. A recent survey revealed that 80 percent of Cincinnatians eat chili at the more than 140 chili parlors throughout the region — a total of 2 million pounds of chili consumed every year.

Ah, but is it chili? The story is that Cincinnati chili was invented by Greek immigrants who heard a description of chili, but had never tasted it. So they tried to create it using spices typical of their native cuisine — cinnamon, cloves, allspice, plus a hint of chocolate. This they then decided to ladle on top of spaghetti, capped with a mound of shredded cheddar cheese and optional chopped onions and beans.

In other words, it resembles what Toledoans know as a chili mac, said Bruce Saba, general manager of Chili Jack's Original Chili Mac in Sylvania. But his Parmigiano-Reggiano-topped chili mac is more like traditional chili, he said, with a spicy kick rather than the sweetness of cinnamon, allspice, and chocolate.

Or, as the legendary Harry Dionyssiou, president of Rudy's Hot Dog, put it, "We don't put no garbage in it. Chili is what it is. Meat and spices— garlic and onion and all the rest of it. Other people put in too much other stuff; they have vegetable soup. They put in there all kinds of junk. We don't have vegetable soup. We have the real McCoy."

Mr. Dionyssiou also has no patience with the Texas view of beans. According to him, "Of course you put chili beans in chili. That's the way it's supposed to be. A bowl of chili, you get meat and beans, that's it."

In New Mexico restaurants, you are likely to be asked "red or green?" That is not an obscure reference to traffic lights, but rather an inquiry into your preferred style of chile (which is how they spell it in New Mexico). Green chile is made from roasted green New Mexico chile peppers originally bred from Anaheims, but hotter; red is made from the same chile pepper that has reached its full maturity, been dried, and made into a powder.

Genuine New Mexico chiles can be ordered online (hatch-chile.com, for one) or by phone (including at 800-292-4454). They are also sometimes available in cans, though these are usually Anaheim peppers that need an extra kick from, say, jalapenos. Don't use canned peppers that have been pickled; that would leave an unpleasant briny taste.

In California, of course, they are always looking for new ways to approach old favorite foods. Sometimes, that tendency leads to unfortunate creations such as bacon ice cream or freeze-dried polenta. But sometimes it gives us such wonderful dishes as white chicken chili, which combines a rich chicken cream sauce with the traditional spices of chili: chili powder, cumin, and a little hot sauce for a bit of a kick.

It's warm and filling and it can touch the soul. Just perfect for a cold winter's day.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

Brazos River Chili

3 pounds top sirloin, cut into 1/4-inch pieces or ground

4 tablespoons bacon drippings

4 large cloves of garlic, minced

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 1/4 cups (10 1/2-ounce can) beef broth

1 3/4 cups chicken broth

1 cup tomato sauce

6 tablespoons chili powder, divided

2 teaspoons onion powder, divided

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste, optional

1-2 whole jalape os, seeded and halved

2 teaspoons ground cumin

In a Dutch oven, brown the meat in the bacon drippings. Add the garlic and onion and cook until translucent.

Add the beef broth, chicken broth and tomato sauce, and bring to a boil. Add 3 tablespoons of the chili powder, 1 teaspoon of the onion powder, the garlic powder, paprika, white pepper, and optional cayenne pepper, and stir well. Float the jalape o halves on surface of chili. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Check occasionally to see that liquid covers the meat. If it begins to look dry, lower the heat and add a little beef broth.

Remove jalape os from surface and stir in the remaining 3 tablespoons of chili powder, 1 teaspoon of onion powder, and the ground cumin. Return jalape os to chili, cover, and simmer over very low heat for an additional hour.

Source: Adapted from texascooking.com

Cincinnati Chili

3 pounds ground chuck

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons chili powder

3 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 1/2teaspoons ground allspice

3/4 teaspoon cayenne powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 can (15-ounce) tomato sauce

6 tablespoons (half of a 6-ounce can) tomato paste

3 cups chicken broth

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Spaghetti, cooked to package directions

Cheddar cheese, shredded

Sweet onion (diced), optional

Cooked red kidney beans, optional

In a large heavy-bottom pot add beef and garlic over medium heat. Cook, breaking up large pieces of beef until no pink remains, approximately 10 minutes. Add chili powder, cocoa, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, and cloves. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in Worcestershire, vinegar, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours.

Ladle about half the chili into a blender or food processor. Blend for 1 minute, until smooth. Stir back into the original pot. Season with salt, more or less to taste. Bring chili back to a simmer; ladle over spaghetti, and, if desired sprinkle with onion and/or beans. Top with a heap of cheese. Serve with oyster crackers.

Source: Adapted from Certified Angus Beef

White Chicken Chili

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)

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

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

16 ounces canned white beans

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

1 1/2 cup grated jack cheese

1/2 cup sour cream

Heat a large skillet over moderately high heat and add oil. Meanwhile season your 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, 10-15 more minutes, depending on the thickness.

Remove the chicken from the pan. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it with your fingers and set aside.

While waiting for chicken to cool, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes.

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 three minutes. Stir in the onion and gradually add the broth and half and half, whisking the whole time. Bring mixture to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes, or until thickened. (It will be nicely and obviously thick.) Stir in Tabasco, chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. Add beans, chilies, chicken, and cheese, and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Add sour cream. May be served immediately, though it improves with overnight refrigeration.

Serve with the usual chili garnishes — cilantro, cheese, jalapenos, tomatoes, etc.

Source: Karen Celia Fox

New Mexico Green Chile

28 ounces green New Mexican chiles or Anaheim chiles (see cook’s note)

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/2 pound pork loin, cut into 1/2-inch chunks, all visible fat removed

3 small garlic cloves, finely minced

1 red onion, finely chopped (optional)

1-2 tablespoons chopped jalapeno pepper, optional

1 teaspoon cumin

1/3 teaspoon salt

1/3 teaspoon white pepper

2 3/4 cups chicken broth

4 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons flour (preferably masa flour)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 large fresh tomatoes, pureed (or peeled and chopped), optional

Cook’s note: Green New Mexican chiles can be ordered online or can sometimes be found in cans — but don’t get the pickled kind in cans. Fresh Anaheim chiles are an acceptable substitute, but you might want to add additional jalapenos, to replace some of the heat.

If using fresh chiles, roast them by putting them directly on the stove burner or on a very hot skillet. Turn occasionally until black spots cover most of the surface. Put the chiles in a paper bag, close the bag, and let them sit 10-15 minutes. You should be able to remove the charred skin with your fingers or a paper towel. Remove the tops and slice the peppers in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds, then finely chop the peppers.

In skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Saut pork until all pink is gone, about 5 minutes. Move meat aside and add garlic and optional onion. As soon as garlic sizzles, stir together with pork. Put into large heavy-bottomed pot.

Add chiles, optional jalapeno, cumin, salt, pepper, and chicken broth to pot, and turn heat to medium high. While you wait for it to boil, in a small bowl add water to flour and cornstarch. Stir to combine. When the pot reaches a low boil, add the cornstarch mixture to the pot. Boil a minute until the chili thickens, then add tomatoes and reduce the heat to very low.

Simmer, covered, for at least 1 hour or up to several hours

Yield: 4 large servings

Source: Adapted from a recipe by Karen Baldwin



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