Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can I Make the Perfect Chili?

I’ve had a very strange relationship with chili my entire life.
I tried chili for the first time when I was about 7 or 8 in the form of a hot dog. I felt I had made one of the world’s greatest discoveries. A food as perfect as a hot dog could actually be made more delicious by the addition of this meaty substance known as chili. I became obsessed with the chili dog, almost forsaking the hot dog itself for the love of chili.
My mother, being the good mother she is, caught onto this and decided to make me some chili for dinner one night. I recall being suitably excited. I’m sure she probably made the version from her old tattered New York Times Cookbook that she still makes for parties as her go-to chili recipe. I must have liked it. I don’t think it tasted like the stuff on my hot dogs, but it wasn’t bad.
Later that night I barfed my brains out.
Looking back on that night, I’m sure it wasn’t the chili that did it. The illness couldn’t have been due to tainted meat since my brother also ate it with no ill effects (and back in those days, there was far less hysteria about ground beef anyway). Still, throwing up after eating chili really ranks up there with some of the most unpleasant experiences of childhood and I wanted it not to be repeated. I wanted something to blame. I was convinced that eating chili would send me into a conversation with Ralph on the porcelain phone.
People were sympathetic, even Mom. There were gentle suggestions that I just can’t tolerate spiciness. That didn’t make sense because I was always eating the red-letter foods off the menu in Chinese restaurants. There were other suggestions that I might have a problem with beans.
I took the bean one to heart. I was never a huge bean fan anyway. For years I avoided both beans and chili, convinced that it would all cause an anti-peristaltic reaction. My love affair with chili and chili dogs had ended.
I’m not sure how I eventually came to eat chili again. It was likely some time in high school when I realized that perhaps I was being a bit extreme in my belief of chili’s devastating effects on my digestive system. Sometimes the stuff really looked good. My brother got really into making chili for a while and I started wanting some. By golly I really wanted to eat it!
So I converted back to being a chili lover, although not as obsessed with it as I was in the chili dog days of my youth. I find it a very comforting and easy meal.
As I grow older and wiser, I find that chili means many things to many people. What one person calls a good chili may be swill to another. Considering the number of chili cook-offs in the country, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the number of ways people can interpret a single dish.
The first thing to consider is the classic Texas chili con carne – chili peppers with meat. Such a concoction is rare in the northeast. I am fascinated by the concept of beef chunks slowly simmered in a strong pepper sauce, unadulterated by beans or even tomatoes. For some there is no other type of chili. For me, it’s as rare as praise from Gordon Ramsey. We just don’t make chili like that around here.
I could try making it myself of course, but I couldn't serve it to the husband. I tried stewing chicken thighs in a hot pepper sauce and simmering it slowly, but it wasn't the same.
So what if you’re making chili the other way with ground meat and beans? Guess what. You’re still going to encounter another hundred recipes. What kind of beans? What kind of meat? Tomatoes or no? How spicy? How sweet? How smoky? Do you even want meat at all?
I have made several attempts at homemade chili, but have never been 100% happy with any of them. Thank goodness my husband, so often dubbed as Sir Pickypants, seems to enjoy every pot of chili I make.
To make my perfect chili, I had to think long and hard about what I like. In every bowl of chili that I have truly enjoyed, what has made me happiest?
Well, first I like beef and pork. Okay. That doesn’t fly in my household. Maybe the Pickypants thing is correctly attributed after all. Let’s just say what’s the ultimate non-red-meat chili?
First, I like chili that’s meaty. When I spoon up a bite of chili, I want to see honest-to-goodness, toothsome meat. I hate it when chili looks like baby food with some beans scattered in it.
Next, that meat has to be suspended in a spicy sauce. I don’t want sloppy joes. I don’t want loose meat. I want something akin to a good stew. Surround that meat with a thick, wondrous red goo.
I like tomatoes in my chili. I’m definitely in the pro-tomato camp. I don’t like ketchup though. I don’t want things too sweet.
I don’t want vegetables in my chili. I have nothing against the veggies, but I don’t think they really add anything to chili. The two tastes and textures cancel each other out. Maybe corn can handle it, but zucchini certainly can’t. I don’t even think bell peppers, a favorite of mine, have a place in chili.
I don’t want my chili underseasoned. I want it spicy. I like it to be a little smoky. A little sweet is fine, but again, not ketchup-y sweet.
Okay. Let’s start on assemblage of my Perfect Chili.
Start with soaking some dried peppers (in this case ancho and habanero) in boiling water. Let them soak a half hour and puree with about half the soaking liquid. The soaking liquid tastes like a hot pepper tea (if you're inclined to taste it).
Saute a big onion and two fresh poblano peppers in a little oil. I like the mix of fresh and dried chilis.
Add turkey (dark meat) and some chopped chicken-turkey andouille sausage.
Add a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, the pepper puree, and a spoonful of chipotle powder along with a cup of chicken stock. I would have liked to have used dried chipotles and soaked them along with the other peppers, but those suckers are expensive. I went with what I had for the smoky taste.
For my beans, I prefer pinto. They're a very neutral bean with a palatable texture.
Now stir it together and simmer it till the husband comes home.
Serve with tortilla chips. Cheddar is a nice idea too. In our house it was one bowl with and one bowl without.

Was it perfect? Was it the ultimate chili? Well, I have to say it was the best turkey chili I have ever made so far. It really makes a difference when you sit down and think about everything you like in a pot of chili and carefully consider ingredients than it does to simply throw stuff in a pot, or simply use a random chili recipe.
I think this recipe could have been a little spicier. I might user more peppers or a bigger variety the next time and would have added more chipotle powder for a bit of a smokier touch. I might have added a little cocoa powder too (I wish I hadn't read this post by Stacey after I made the chili as it might have reminded me that a little cocoa powder would have been nice). That's the nice thing about chili though. Your options for variations are endless. Maybe that's why there is no perfect chili. You can always make it better or at least differently. Chili is about the journey, not the destination.
Almost Perfect Chili
2 dried ancho peppers, stemmed and seeded
  • 2-3 dried habanero peppers, stemmed and seeded
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 Tbl oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp ancho chili powder
  • 1 Tbl cocoa powder
  • 2 fresh poblano peppers, finely diced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 pounds Ground turkey thigh meat
  • 4 links of turkey andouille sausage, finely chopped
  • 1 28 oz can pureed tomatoes
  • 1 15 oz can pinto beans
  • 1 Tbl chipotle powder
  • 2 tsp salt 
  • In a bowl, pour boiling water over the dried peppers. Let sit 30 minutes to reconstitute them. Place in a blender with 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid and puree until smooth.
    In a large pan (I used a big saute pan, but a big saucepan will work nicely too) heat oil and add onion and poblanos. Cook until soft. Add cumin, oregano, ancho chili powder, and cocoa powder.  Stir until onions are well coated and spices are very fragrant.  Add garlic and cook for another minute or two. 
    Add the turkey and sausage to the pot and brown the turkey well.
    Stir in the pepper puree, tomatoes, chipotle powder, and salt. Mix well and then gently stir in the beans.
    Simmer for at least an hour.
    Serve with tortilla chips and plenty of grated cheddar cheese.


    Nikki said...

    I like the poblano addition. I always forget to add peppers to my chilis. I spice up mine is cayenne usually. I wish I had a go-to chili recipe. Other than Cincinnati chili, I really don't make it much. I'm going to keep roasted peppers in mind for next time though.

    polwig said...

    This looks really easy and good... I make 3 chillies: chicken, vegetarian and beef. The beef one is the most time consuming when you cook stew meat and then break it up, even add chocolate. Yeah there are too many versions of chili, as long as it has water and chili powder you can call it that I guess. I like yours because it can be done so quickly.

    katiez said...

    Ah the childhood food aversions! I got sick after eating cream cheese finger sandwhiches at a wedding when I was 8 - it was YEARS before I touched cream cheese again.... Cream cheese!
    My mother puts celery in her chili.... my sister puts macaroni in...
    I call both options 'tomato beef soup'
    Yours looks yummy - but I would do beef LOL

    Sue said...

    That's such an interesting well-thought out recipe. I love all the peppers you used.

    Not that that recipe needs ANY changing, there are two things you might try next time to ramp up the flavor. Add the chipotle powder to the onions after they're softened and cook on a super low heat for three minutes. (And I would add cumin, oregano and supermarket chili powder too.) Plus at the end I always add a tablespoon or so of red wine vinegar, which is amazing at adding some brightness to the dish.

    The Duo Dishes said...

    Want. chili. now. Starting with the roasted peppers is a great idea for smokey spice though. Good one.

    The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

    Nikki - Good to see you back in the blogsphere! I've never tried going Cincinnati. My husband would love the pasta underneath it. Maybe that should be my next project.

    Polwig - Your beef chili is exactly the kind of chili that's so hard to find in the northeast and that I wish I could make.

    Katie - I would do beef too if it weren't for my husband and his delciate tum-tum. Now that I think of it, I have to wonder if he's still suffering from childhood aversions of his own.

    Sue - Thanks for the reminder. I FORGOT CUMIN. Cumin is an essentail ingredient in chili. DUH! I'll add it the next time along with the chocolate. Not sure I'd bother with regular chili powder though. My chili is pretty well set with peppers.

    DD - I know you guys would make a superstar chilis when the mood strike you. Go forth and cook some meat!

    The Blonde Duck said...

    I LOVE chili. I made some the other weekend that Ben adored--which is good, since I could eat it daily!

    Emily said...

    Yum! I'm not usually a big chili fan, but yours looks awesome. Nice work!

    The Blonde Duck said...

    Merry Christmas!