Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On the making of chili.

This batch of chili started with the peppers -- remaindered
peppers after a snowstorm.  The green ones were a little
leathery, but they'd be perfect for this.
When I roast peppers, I use what's readily available in flame.
I have a real preference for gas.  And before I started, I
scoured both cooktop and grills.  Still, you should be
prepared for ashen mess.  Roasting peppers is not neat.
I love the turn of the peppers over the flame.  You do need a
little char to get them going for the next step. 
Roasting the onions isn't part of my normal recipe, but after
slicing into this smooth rounded inner ring, I wanted to
put it to fire for the caramelization.
There is a pop you'll hear some-
times, as the peppers expand with
the heat of flame.  They never
explode, they just pop and sigh
like what you might hear from a
winter's hearth.
In my 12 quart Healthcraft pot, I start the first of the cut
onions.  I only had a single onion on my countertop but
knew there were plenty of bags of frozen onions in the
freezer.  The fresh onion was first, sauteed in the bottom
of the big pot with the barest touch of olive oil.
Once the larger slices went translucent I added in the bagged
onions.  These I thawed in their packages under cold running
water in the sink.  I cut a hole in the end of each package
once they were thawed and squeezed out the liquid. Draining
frozen onions is essential.  The tiny bits are freeze-dried
garlic.  There's a half cup's worth here.  Don't judge me.
My kitchen isn't fancy, and it's usually cluttered.  I also tend
to cook in low light -- it's more intimate, and my cooking
surface is well lit.
You'll know the pepper has been fully roasted when the parts
that aren't charred become lighter and leathery.  I have
tongs to manipulate the peppers over the burners.
Once the onions all became golden and translucent, I added
in the beef.  This big thick pot will cook the beef through.
Yes, that means the onions continue to cook in beef grease.
That doesn't worry me.
The roasted peppers.  That black piece is
burnt pepper skin.
By this point in the process, I was back in 1992, thinking
about that last evening with the boyfriend I left behind.
Haven't really thought about him in years.  I hope he found
what he was looking for.  There was a beautiful closure to
the act of creating and sharing this dish with him.  
This time around, with the five pounds of ground beef in
the pot, I started adding in the cumin.  We're not talking a
teaspoon here.  We're talking four or five tablespoons.
Also, black and white pepper.
So, how do you peel a roasted pepper?
Cold water. Rub that scorched skin
right off.
There's something so naked about the sensation of a freshly
roasted pepper in your hands, the pliancy to it.  For each
pepper, I rubbed off the skin, twisted the cap and pulled
out the seeds.
The result?  Juicy wet peppers on my cutting board.
Over in the big pot, the spiced beef and onion mixture kept
on browning.  I remember my ex-husband would always stop
me at this point to remind me not to put beans in.  He claimed
he was allergic; he was not.  I'd often take tomato sauce and
drop in the beans, hit it hard with the immersion blender and
dump them in.  Dude once bodychecked me at the stove
because he saw beans on the counter.... he was asking for it.
To cut slimy denuded roasted peppers -- first tear open one
side, flatten and remove the white bits.  This takes away the
bitter, allegedly.  It's also a good time to catch any errant
seeds that might not have come out with the core.
Fold pepper in half.  Slice lengthwise.  Make one slice
across the lengthwise slices to cut them shorter.
I drain the peppers -- don't really have to, but I do.
This is the picture of contentment for me -- beans to the
right, peppers to the left, pot full of meat.  Let's go.
Drain the beef.  I did so in the old plastic
colander I keep for that purpose, lined
with a hefty layer of paper towels. 
Assembly time.  My friend and mentor Charles once saw
me conduct this part of the operation while on an outdoor
adventure.  Told me I looked like the wizard in the Sorcerer's
Apprentice.  He's been gone 11 years now, but I still think
about him when I get to this part.
On top of the meat, the spices -- including a full quarter cup
of cumin.  I really like cumin.  Tablespoon salt.  Teaspoon
each black and white pepper.  And then the beans -- left to
right light kidney beans, red beans, dark kidney beans, black
beans.  When I'm feeling feisty, I add in Great Northerns.  I
pour it all in -- bean juice and all.  This keeps me from having
to add water later.
On top of that, the tomatoes.  I usually put in cans of whole,
diced and petit diced tomatoes with some tomato sauce
or paste.  The post-snowfall crowds wiped out all but the
petit diced.
Another mix, more cumin.  Did I mention I like cumin?
And in go the peppers.  They've already been cooked
through, and I love the color they add to the pot.
Everything mixed, low heat engaged, top on pot and as
Alton Brown says, "WALK AWAY."  For an hour.
Mind you, I will come back and stir it from time to time.  But
an hour's a good point at where to see what spicing it might
need.  In this case -- black pepper.  I usually hold out a can
each of beans and tomatoes in case the spice is too strong,
but this time around I nailed it on the head.
If I have ever made you chili, you should know that I love you.

And then there was dinner for the three of us.  As with all
good chili (and good relationships), it just gets better
with time.  Also, I like a dollop of sour cream with mine.
Chili is different for everyone out there, every cook, every competitor.  I did actually compete in-state briefly on the Chili Appreciation Society International circuit… with an all-beef slightly Indian-spiced varietal that was pretty decent, but no winner.  I’m not talking about that chili.

I’m talking about the meat-and-beans concoction stewed together with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, a lot of cumin and a lot of love.

Oh yes, some people make cookies to show their devotion – others cakes.  A close friend seduced her husband with a loaf of homemade bread.  My talents lie not in the bakery or even the charcuterie but in the honest pot of conglomeration that bears and holds the chili I make.

My chili making as a young woman was reprehensible – in fact, even I preferred the cheap little cans of hot dog chili to my teenage efforts.

That all changed my senior year of high school, not because of any great coming-of-age or some fantastic date, but because of a boyfriend of one of my friend’s moms.  Don was a decent guy who years later I would realize was one of the last of the true hippies.  He was a fantastic cook with lots of kitchen secrets.  But one of those days when I showed up to see my friend and neither he nor his mom was there, I stuck around… to learn the magical art of chili making.

I was indeed a young paduwan, just preparing to leave for college and full of myself.  But the culinary arts were of interest to me.   I had, from the time I was old enough to work the massive magical box of a microwave, been providing meals to my family.  I cooked often, mostly from boxes and cans but as I matured I explored my mother’s spice cabinet and spelunked in the fridge for whatever had been purchased on the latest trip to the store, and I would come up with things.  I might not have been able to make a roux (an art I only mastered as a married woman) but I could do amazing things with pasta, cheese, tomatoes and meat or a handful of spices and cream cheese.  I’m not saying I was gifted, I’m just saying I was creative.

Yet outside of a moderately inadequate semester of home ec my junior year, my training had been limited to those few moments my mom could spend with me, or the bare observation I was able to accomplish in the kitchens of my grandmother or my mom’s friends.  I should have taken more time observing my friends’ parents once I had wheels, but I was 16 and a band geek and full of hormones.  You probably know how that is.

Don saw in me something that could be cultivated, and though he claimed he never shared his secrets in the kitchen, that one particular day he set me to opening cans, grinding spices and watching as he assembled a pot of what he considered to be the perfect chili – browning beef, sautéing together onions and garlic (and explaining to me the difference in flavor of chopped, sliced and smashed garlic), roasting peppers over the flame of the gas stove and adding in stages those translucent aromatic vegetables, cans of various beans, diced tomatoes, the beef and layer after layer of black pepper, white pepper and cumin.

Oh, cumin, my oldest and deepest love.  From the moment that bottle was opened that afternoon I was besmitten with it.  It smelled like chili to me, like the purest essence of what I expected chili to be.  Over the years I would be charmed by it over and over again, as I experimented first with stews and soups and then with the meats.  I would fall in love all over again at the age of 30 as I discovered the joys of the different ages and regions of Indian cooking.  No musk or cologne ever entranced me the way cumin has.

An afternoon when one of my closest friends had forgotten my imminent arrival, when the wind outside was saturated and mossy, Don shared with me what would become that dish I’d return to over and over again.

Chili started to define important days in my love life.  I showed up at a boyfriend’s door one weekend when his parents were away with all the ingredients I needed – even a pot – on a freshman year visit home.  We’d never really broken off our relationship when I graduated, and there were many things to say.   We talked about our lives over the counter as I roasted and sliced and spiced, and when the pot’s contents matured we shared bowls from it, an informal ceremony that marked our last meal together.  We never saw each other again.

Chili making in the dorm was an occasion where I would meet girls I never knew attended Tech.  Our kitchenette on the second floor of Roush Hall was a single piece affair with a built in refrigerator that had frozen itself into a single solid ice cube within, alongside a barely adequate oven a step above an Easy Bake.  But my one big pot fit across two of the burners, and my tiny sauté pan rested on the third, and if I asked really nicely someone else would chop the onions on a plate on top of the old sewing machine cabinet.

The rare days I made chili in our succession of houses and duplexes once I left the dorm were always hits – my contribution to the growing number of roommates under our roof.  It was the first thing I made on the stove in our Little Rock apartment when that boyfriend and I moved back home, and the first thing I made on the stove in my Jonesboro apartment when the gas was finally flipped on one December afternoon in 1995.

When I married, my husband’s wedding gift to us was a large television and our first DVR player; mine was an expensive set of Healthcraft cookware I purchased at the state fair.  The biggest pot, the 12 quart monster, was the perfect vessel – I could brown beef and sauté onions on its bottom, drain it and add in my layers on top.  Seeing the pot on the stovetop on arrival home from an overnight of work culled any argument we might have had… it meant a day of no fighting over who would provide our pre-slumber meal, or what we’d eat when we got up before heading in at midnight to our respective television stations.

Holidays?  Chili.  Potlucks?  Chili.  Needed to feed 150 medieval re-enactors at an SCA event?  Chili.  Oh sure, some would complain that chili didn’t need beans – that included my now-ex, who claimed he was allergic to beans but never seemed to mind when I had obliterated them with the immersion blender first.  Some would gripe about the lack of spice – and I’d hand them some cayenne-garlic sauce.

I made it mine – and like my bread pudding, I make it with what’s on-hand.  I prefer a variety of bell peppers but will settle for just green ones and, if time is of essence or cost is an issue, will replace with that three pepper and onion frozen blend.  I’ve made it with dry beans before but prefer canned ones because of the “bean juice” in those cans.  I’ve made it with fresh tomatoes and frozen ones and once even with a giant can of V8 because I haven’t had anything else to work with.  I’ve used ground beef and shredded beef and chicken and venison and veal (!) and duck and turkey and once even squirrel (I don’t advise it) – and I’ve even made it without ground pepper.  But it always contains onion and garlic, and it always – ALWAYS – contains cumin.

Today I got out to the store.  I knew I had writing I wanted to do, and Hunter and I are working on making Valentine’s packets for her school, but after the snow that just fell and the next one expected I had to get out of the house and be around people I wasn’t related to.  I went to Kroger, and because of the weather the produce section was just full of remaindered vegetables – including bell peppers.

Lately my soul has felt friction.  My path has never seemed so clear, yet there are obstacles I must remove before I can return to it.  I have felt unsteady.  My eyes have watered from the winds of change.  It’s time to make a pot full of sustenance.  From the five pounds of meat that’s been thawing in a cold water bath in my sink today will come dinner for us, care packages for Grav to take to his father and some put back in bags in the freezer for when time eludes me and there’s a hungry young girl to feed.

I don’t purport to be a star chef, but I do feel that you’ve done me a great grace of reading through this blog and perhaps others of mine, and sharing my chili with you is the least I can do.

One big pot of chili

Five pounds ground chuck.  When I am poor, ground beef will do.  When I am doing well, I like throwing in a bit of chopped steak into the mix.  When my belly is sore, I shred chicken.

Tomatoes.  Today the tomatoes in the produce section looked sad, as they should in February but this time mushy as well.  I procured what cans of tomatoes had been left when the crowds came this morning – mostly petit diced.  Five cans.

Beans.  With the blessing of meat, I am going with four cans – light red kidney beans, dark red kidney beans, red beans, black beans.  When meat is scarce I double this.

Onion.  Chopped.  I have stuck some back in the freezer from previous cookery.  I’m also throwing in a couple of bag’s worth of frozen plus a whole yellow onion that’s been sitting on my counter for a week.

Peppers.  Boy they’ve been expensive lately. However, the produce section findings included two four-count bags.  I have six green, one yellow, one red.

Garlic.  I thought I had a nearly dry head in the cabinet.  I’ll use a few slightly shriveled cloves, some freeze-dried and maybe some garlic salt.  And I’ll put garlic back on my shopping list.  Can’t believe I forgot to pick it up.

Black and white pepper.  These I keep in the grinder.  Sometimes I get the pepper mélange with its green and red peppercorns too – but this time, I want to balance the flavors a bit more.

Cumin.  Ground.  I just picked up a fresh bag from Indian Grocer, since there was just a whisp left in the old Tomes container.  Yes, I still use the Tomes container.  I just find the $2 bag for either six or eight ounces of cumin at Indian Grocer far more affordable – and it allows me to get over there and go through the exotic teas and masala and nuts and chutneys.

Alongside this blog entry you see the photographs from my chili-making. This wasn't something just thrown together -- though the chili I make in that fashion has fed hundreds over the years. This was an afternoon to shed off the worry and hurry of life and to let the memories come to the surface. The scent of roasting peppers brought forward a lot in my mind -- of sinks I'd leaned over while trying to solve the dilemnas of my world. Of the people I was cooking for -- and moreso, of those few instances where someone shared my kitchen.

There's no official recipe here... everyone makes chili differently. But please, walk through the images and you'll see what came to my mind.

Chili stories, now.

I used to get upset with the ex because if I put beans in, he'd pick them back out and put them in the pot.

I've been told I make Wendy's chili.  Mind you, when I am on the poor side, a $1 bowl of their chili and a baked potato is a hearty lunch.  But I think I do it better.  Also, they need more cumin.

When I'm feeding large groups, I will cook up gallons of chili -- some with meat, some without.  If I get a good sale on ground beef, it's very cheap -- and it goes further when I do "the bar."  Now, "the bar" is a construct I took from my high school days, when I figured out it was cheaper to purchase a baked potato and go to the potato bar than to purchase a full lunch.  I got more, and it was filling and good.  For "the bar," I usually get the Sam's Club box of tortilla chips, 20 pounds of potatoes (I bake them the morning of), a can of nacho cheese sauce, a large container of sour cream and the largest container of salsa I can find.  This satisfies so many people in so many ways -- baked potatoes, nachos, chili, it's all right there.  If I am feeling generous or find a sale, I also throw in hot dogs and buns.

I found out my old pressure cooker needed a new gasket while trying to can this chili.

This is the only chili my friend Neale trusts to eat.  He has a delicate stomach.  I have macho friends that make fun of this chili, but I never see them turning down a bowl.

My friend Bryan passed away this week.  I'm still in shock about it.  Just a couple of weeks ago, he joined me and Grav and about a dozen others in a church kitchen to cook for an SCA event in Conway.  I had found fresh garlic on sale and had forgotten my rolling pen, but we located a hammer and I smashed the hell out of the garlic cloves through a freezer bag.  I apologized for the near-macing of the kitchen crew when I opened said bag.  He told me he figured that's how heaven smells.

The other piece of advice Don gave me about the chili -- and relationships in general -- is that a good man will always eat your cooking, even if it's not what he might like.  A really good man will tell you what's wrong with it before he finishes it off.

I have a gallon of chili now in the freezer and a quart in the fridge.  It'll be a while before I get back to making more, but at least I have what I need when I feel the craving.

Grav tells me it's good, but next time, add more beans.


  1. I've been missing your blogs ~ Maybe this is 1st since Christmas ?

  2. Thanks for sharing your chili stories, Kat. Sorry for your recent loses and turmoil.

  3. Chili is almost as personal as underwear!!! We all have our "mine is best" favs. Enjoyed your post.

  4. Ex boyfriends and missed opportunities as a starry eyed teenager and faux allergies and recent loss - This post was delightful in a "every once in a while it's nice to cry" kind of way. No sarcasm intended, I really enjoyed it. And I hope you really enjoyed your meal.


Be kind.