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Chili is fun foodeasy to make, simple to serve, and a delight to share with friends and family. As American as a cheeseburger, it is appreciated by epicures and chowhounds alike; and perhaps more than any other single dish, its character can vary from rugged to elegant, and its calorie count can go from stout to svelte.
In a quarter century on the road hunting for good things to eat, we have savored gourmet chilies crafted by four-star urban chefs as well as humble ones cooked by night-shift cooks in highway diners. We have spooned up good chili elbow-to-elbow with truck drivers in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and with debutantes in Darien, Connecticut. As home cooks ourselves, we have served chili to friends and neighbors, who range from adventurous omnivores to comfort-food Milquetoasts.
We have come to believe that chili may just be this country's one truly shared national food. Although Tex-Mex in origin, it is a dish now found on every American table, across cultural and ethnic lines.
Even when they are not the four-alarm hot variety, most chilies we've encountered in our travels pack a lot of flavor. Indeed, the range of character from coast to coast is tremendous, from the fiery Code 10 Chili we discovered in a small café in Cody, Wyoming, to the honest farm-stand Blue Hen Succotash Chili of Delaware and from the booming Line Camp Chili of Alaska to the health-conscious Black Bean Vegetable Chili of Café Brenda in Minneapolis.
Some kinds of chili have cult followingsin Cincinnati, kaleidoscopic Five-Way Chili is a passion among local connoisseurs, who can tell you which day of the week and what time of day the chili is best at their favorite chili parlor. Some chilies are taken for granted because they are so much a part of culinary custom. In the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico, hardly any meal would be served without a classic bowl of red or bowl of green to accompany whatever else is on the menu. The beauty of these chilies is their absolute simplicity: pureed local peppers, spiced only to accent their flavor, with no meat or starch to dilute the intensity. And there are some chilies that are unknown to the rest of the world but are a true expression of regional gastronomic passion, such as Gilroy Super Garlic Chili from California's farmland, and Cornish Miner Chili Pasties from Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Many of this book's recipes reflect the specialties of locally cherished chili joints, such as Charlie Porubsky's chili from Porubsky's Grocery of Topeka, Kansas, and Green Bay Chili from Chili John's of Green Bay, Wisconsin (in business since 1913). Other recipes, while not inspired by a particular restaurant, express the way locals like to eat, incorporating regional produce and flavors, for example, Indiana's Sunday Supper Chicken Chili made with farm-fresh vegetables, Yankee Bean Pot Chili from New Hampshire, and picadillo-like Havana Moon Chili from the Florida Keys.
Chili can be ribsticking or utterly dietetic; it can be made with any or all kinds of meat or no meat at all, with or without beans, fire hot or cream mild. Even the most deluxe recipes are nonintimidating. Creating a breathtaking bowl of red involves little in the way of advanced kitchen skills or exotic ingredients. For spices and chiles that may not be accessible in ordinary markets, we have included a list of mail-order sources (pages 8-10); and we have also included some brief tips for vital chili-specific cooking techniques, such as handling hot peppers and using masa harina to thicken a brew (page 6).
What's especially enjoyable about chili is that every part of this nation has its own way of making it; some versions are so eccentric that people in other regions wouldn't even recognize them. The aim of this book is to take readers and cooks on a coast-to-coast trip to taste the cultural diversity we Americans express in our chili bowls.
California: Gilroy Super Garlic Chili
The small town of Gilroy, California, is the Garlic Growing Capital of the World, producing hundreds of thousands of tons of aromatic bulbs every year. The fertile farmland east of Monterey Bay also yields bountiful crops of tomatoes, onions, and peppers; so when local produce is harvested and processed, the air smells like an Italian food festival. Humorist Will Rogers once declared Gilroy "the only town in America where you can marinate a steak just by hanging it out on the clothesline."
To celebrate its status as Garlic Central, Gilroy initiated an outrageous food festival in August 1979 devoted to eating, cooking, and otherwise admiring the world's best-known vampire repellent. Among the recipes entered in the 1980 cooking contest was an intriguing one from Wesley L. Minor of Seal Beach, California, for Green Garlic Chili. We came across it in the locally published Garlic Lovers' Cookbook, an entire volume devoted to things you can make using the stinking rose: from garlic soup to garlic pudding for dessert.
What we like about Mr. Minor's chili is its use of whole garlic cloves, a technique reminiscent of James Beard's famous recipe for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. Cooked long and slow in olive oil, the garlic cloves lose their bite, soften, and become the chile peppers' amiable companions. The original recipe calls for fresh green chiles as well as green tomatoes. Over the years, we've modified the formula quite a bit. Because we can't always get fresh chiles, we use dried onesfairly mild California chiles work best in this recipeand we started using canned tomatillos when we couldn't find green tomatoes.
This chili has enough of a punch that you don't want to serve anything elaborate on the side. We like it best in a bowl with a few boiled potatoes or white rice, or with lengths of sturdy French bread for mopping sauce and using as a bed for the whole cloves of garlic retrieved from the bowl.
6 dried California chiles One 28-ounce can tomatillos, drained
1/2 cup olive oil
3 large garlic bulbs, separated into cloves (40 to 50 cloves)
1/2 cup chopped onions
2 pounds chuck roast, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large tomato, skinned and diced
1 cup chopped fresh basil
1) Place the chiles in a large heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 30 minutes, until soft; then seed and stem them. In a food processor or blender, process or puree the chiles and tomatillos. Set aside.
2) Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Peel the garlic cloves and sauté them until they are soft and just barely begin to brown. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the beef, salt, and pepper, stirring to brown the beef on all sides. Pour off the excess fat. Add the chile puree and the tomato. Stir in the basil and simmer uncovered 30 minutes, stirring often.
Florida: Havana Moon Chili
It's a long trip from anywhere in the ordinary U.S.A. to the southernmost tip of Florida: Key West. Here in the Conch Republic, you are closer to Havana than to Miami, and the taste of life has a spice all its own.
One of the most alluring things that keeps our car heading south by southwest toward Margaritaville is the promise of the great Cuban-accented food to be savored in Miami and along the overseas highway that threads the Keys. Let others visit Florida to spend time with Mickey Mouse; we'll go for the fried plantains, the guanabana milk shakes, the black beans and rice, and coffee strong enough to make the rooster crow. We also go for the picadillo at El Siboney, our favorite Cuban-style restaurant in Key West.
Picadillo is served all over south Florida. It is a humble ground meat dish that sparkles with the tang of green olives, vinegar, and capers. Our Havana Moon recipe marries the basic elements of picadillo to the spirit and spices of chili making. The result is an easy-to make one-dish meal with chili's satisfaction and a high-spirited Cuban twist.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground chuck One 14 1/2-ounce can beef broth One 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, drained
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup raisins
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup pimiento-stuffed green olives, halved
1/4 cup slivered blanched almonds
2 cups cooked black beans
2 cups cooked white rice
1) Heat the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven. Stir in the onion and garlic and cook until soft. Add the pork and beef, and cook until browned. Drain off the excess fat.
2) Add the beef broth and tomatoes, squashing each tomato by hand before adding it. Stir in the vinegar, raisins, spices, and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and cook 30 minutes, partially covered. Uncover and cook for 30 minutes more. Add the olives and almonds and cook an additional 5 minutes.
3) To serve, place a mound of beans and a mound of rice in each bowl. Ladle the chili on top.
New Hampshire: Yankee Bean Pot Chili
For as long as we have been married, a pillar on our regional cookbook shelf has been The New England Yankee Cookbook, written by Imogene Wolcott in 1939. Featuring not only regional recipes and lore, it also includes antique photos of local heroes: a clam digger in his rubber boots, a white-haired granny rolling out the dough for cookies, a stalwart family at its dinner table. Even better than the book itself is the fact that we found it in a secondhand store somewhere in New Hampshire and its previous owner had used it well. It is stained, blotched, and strewn with evidence of someone none-too-neat in the kitchen, who apparently tried nearly every recipe; and many of those recipes are annotated with the cook's comments.
Some twenty years ago when we saw an enthusiastic Very Good! written in pencil next to the New Hampshire Baked Yellow Eye Pork and Beans recipe, we knew we should try it. We did, and with only minor modifications, it became our standard recipe for serious, stout-flavored Yankee pork and beans. Add a good measure of pureed chiles and it becomes a bowl of red with one heckuva punchnot exactly vegetarian (the salt pork is essential) but not beefy either.
Although the recipe requires little effort, it does demand lots of time for soaking the beans and cooking them slowly.
2 1/2 cups dried yellow-eye beans
2 cups barbecue sauce
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons salt
8 dried whole ancho chile peppers
3/4 pound salt pork, scored deeply with a knife on the nonrind side
1) Wash the beans and soak overnight in cold water. Drain. Place the beans in a large pot and cover with fresh water. Simmer 60 to 90 minutes, until the skins start to wrinkle. Drain. In a large bowl, mix the beans with 1 cup of the barbecue sauce, the sugar, molasses, mustard, pepper, ginger, and salt.
2) Place the chiles in a large heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 30 minutes, until soft; then seed and stem them. In a food processor or blender, puree the chiles with the remaining 1 cup of barbecue sauce.
3) Preheat the oven to 300°F. Add the chile puree to the beans, mix, and turn into a bean pot. Place the salt pork on top of the beans with the rind side up. Cover the bean pot and bake for 5 hours. Uncover for the last hour so the beans get crusty.