Saturday, July 25, 2009


Chili is just maybe the first dish that I ever made.

I actually was never fond of chili growing up. When my mother made chili she served a limpid bowl of ground beef floating in a tepid broth of stewed tomatoes and canned kidney beans, which were topped with some powdered spices from a packet. Served as the occasional super-saver supper, Mom would notice my turned-up nose and say "Someday you will long for a bowl of your mother's chili."

Of course she was right.

Salt of the earth that she was, Mom was never much of a cook, but in retrospect I am astounded by the fact that as a single mother of three and working a full-time job, she managed to pull together a home-cooked, sit-down dinner every night. She did take full advantage of the time and cost-saving measures available: dinner was usually a simple, pan fried or oven baked protein accompanied by a canned or frozen vegetable with a simple starch or salad. The occasional Chinese dinner was Chun King chow mein from a box, and we were well-acquainted with Chef Boyardee. Being Catholic, Friday meals were usually fish sticks or Kraft macaroni and cheese.

She did try to stretch out now and then, usually on weekends. Armed with recipes clipped from the Sunday supplements, she tried such exotic treats as the cool wedge and ambrosia salads. She became fond of chicken breasts that she topped with a tablespoon of mayonnaise and then baked.

Then there were the casseroles. There was no collection of ingredients that she believed could not be redeemed by the addition of canned mushroom soup or onion soup mix - maybe both. Tuna Surprise? I'm not surprised. The last straw was a vile concoction featuring chicken, peaches and potato chips that even Mom wouldn't eat.

And the chili. While I still am not drawn to the watery, bean-soup style, I have been constantly brought back to chili as the ultimate comfort food. Once living on my own, chili was the first recipe I looked up in Joy of Cooking. Chili was the dish that made me want to cook with all fresh or home-prepared ingredients: fresh tomatoes, onions and garlic; dried beans soaked and simmered; chopping fresh meat.

I ordered chili in restaurants everywhere. I was amazed at all the different dishes that called themselves chili. There were diner chilis that all tasted like Hormel, chilis with beans, chili without beans, and chili with spaghetti. Deer meat chili, rattlesnake chili, and veggie chili. Sweet tomatoey chilis, savory herbal chilis, and of course the blistering, how-hot-have-you-got witch's brew chilis that can peel your paint.

Some dear friends, Steve and Kolet, once hosted a backyard get together and the main event was chili. I was knocked over by the rich, smokey taste of that chili. Kolet told me that as she began to prepare the chili for the party, she discovered that she had no ground beef. So, she grabbed a couple of pounds of slab bacon, ground them up like hamburger and put that in the chili.

It was fantastic.

I spent the next couple of years futilely attempting to copy that chili. It was much later that I realized the true lessons of that day were of spontaneity and inspiration.

Which brings us to tonight's chili, made from ingredients on hand:
  • 1 lb ground buffalo meat (yes, we had buffalo in the freezer)
  • 1.5 lbs skirt steak, coarsely ground
  • .25 lb Mexican choritzo
  • 15 oz can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 1 can pinto beans
  • 1 cup leftover homemade ancho chili sauce
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 Vidalia onion
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 2 bottles dark Mexican beer
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • Random dashes of: cumin, ground coriander, ancho powder, sweet paprika, smoked paprika, chipotle powder, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, oregano, ground cinnamon, espresso powder, cocoa powder, turbinado sugar, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, lime juice, salt, pepper.
Despite all the window dressing, I'm back to my Mom's ground meat, canned tomatoes, canned beans and powdered spices.

It's good to be home.

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