Thursday, December 29, 2011

Chili for One

I grew up in Fort Worth and, at least in terms of food, it is the crossroads of Texas.  Influences from all parts of the state melted together in Fort Worth’s chuck wagons, uh, kitchens, and created what I believe is overall the best the state has to offer.  Yes, there are regions where certain food styles and types are as good as it gets, but all of those regions are superbly represented in Fort Worth.

It is difficult to find better central Texas barbeque than in central Texas, unless one wants east Texas style barbeque.  For that, one must go to east Texas.  The Tex-Mex food of south Texas is different from the Tex-Mex food of west Texas.  Chili is found everywhere, but certain ingredients are added or left out in different regions.  Does one add beans or tomatoes to Texas Chili?  How about chicken or pork instead of beef?  Tofu?  Forget I mentioned that one.  But each approach to authentic Texas chuck, uh, food, can be found in Fort Worth.

Some of my friends were “purists” when it came to chili.  One refused to eat my chili because it contained beans.  Another refused because it contained tomatoes.  And his wife wouldn’t eat it because it didn’t contain ketchup.  But I liked my chili.  I never considered it a competition chili, because I really don’t know what makes a competition chili.  And the competition chilies I’ve tried were boring at best, or often just too hot to enjoy.  I like flavor, and if I have to combine styles from the different regions of Texas to make my Texas chili, I will do it.  I finally reached a point where I wouldn’t invite anyone over for chili.  If they want boring, they can make it for themselves while I enjoy my chili alone.

My recipe is influenced mainly by an experience I had in Tyler, Texas, January 16, 1972.  The Dallas Cowboys were playing the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI, and my car was broken down waiting for a mechanic to work on it the following day.  I was in a motel watching the game when I got a knock on the door.  It was the motel manager, and he had a cart with a big pot of chili, bowls, beverages, and other things.

“Mind if I join you?  My television is on the blink.  Brought along some chili.”

 I can’t recall a single time in my life when I turned down chili.  So we watched the Cowboys kick some Dolphin tail, and we ate chili.  It was different from any chili I had ever had.  It had real flavor.  And it had just enough heat to require a good beverage.  The motel manager said most Texans turn their noses up at it because it doesn’t fit their idea of a true Texas chili, but what is a true Texas chili anyway?

I had never asked myself that question before.  I decided that a true Texas chili isn’t determined by a regional preference, but by whether or not it’s any good.  I’ve eaten “true Texas chili” in all parts of the state, and some were good enough, and some were, well, not good enough.  To me, if it’s not any good, it doesn’t matter if it’s a “true Texas chili,” it’s just not any good.

With all that said, here is my recipe for East Texas Chili, so named because I was in East Texas when my eyes were opened to the idea that chili should first and foremost taste good.

East Texas Chili

Best when made one or two days ahead.

Serves 1 about 30 times.

    30 mixed dried chiles (ancho, negro, guajillo, California, etc.) , stemmed, seeded, coarsely torn*
    Olive oil as needed for sautéing                               
    1 1/4 pounds (4 cups) chopped yellow onions                    
    1 1/4 pounds (4 cups) chopped red onions                                 
    1 1/2 pounds leeks, cut into 1/4-inch circles, white and light green parts only
    1 pound chopped shallots                                       
    2 1/2 pounds good quality ground beef chuck                    
    2 1/2 pounds beef chuck eye roast, cut into 3/4-inch cubes     
    1 (3 1/2 to 4-pound) first (flat) cut beef brisket, cut into 1-inch cubes
    Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper                    
    2 heads garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped                     
    1/4 cup toasted cumin seeds                                    
    4 teaspoons dried oregano                                      
    1/4 cup coriander seeds, crushed                               
    1/4 cup coarse salt                                             
    4 (10-ounce) cans fire-roasted, diced tomatoes with chiles, with juices
    3 to 4 bottles beer (Tecate is good, and so is Shiner Bock)    
    4 (7-ounce) cans diced roasted green chiles, with juices      
    1 bunch fresh cilantro stems, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
    3 (15 1/2-ounce) cans pinto beans with juices                  
    2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed              
    2 (15-ounce) cans garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed            
    1/2 pound Spanish hard manchego cheese, finely grated                 
    1 disk Mexican chocolate, finely chopped or grated
    1/2 cup stone ground corn flour (not masa harina)

*The best mix of dried chilies I’ve come up with begins with 10 to 12 ancho chiles.  After that, just use at least 4 other kinds of chiles.  The heat can be adjusted by the type of chiles added, but the best place to start is with a medium heat level.  Also, a few more chiles is okay especially if they are small.

Place stemmed and seeded chiles into a food processor and pulse until the pieces are about 1/4- inch or less in size.  Place chiles in a bowl, and pour enough boiling water over to cover.  Soak until chiles soften, at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.

Pour about 1 tablespoon olive oil into a large skillet and heat over medium heat until hot.  Add onions, leeks, and shallots (in batches if necessary and adding more oil as needed); cover and cook until tender, about 7 to 10 minutes per batch.  Remove to a very large deep stockpot, and keep warm over very low heat.

Add the ground chuck to the skillet and cook until browned.  Remove to the pot with the onions.  Sprinkle cubed beef all over with coarse salt and pepper.  Add to pot without browning; stir to mix everything together.  Set aside.

Drain chiles, reserving soaking liquid.  Place chiles in a blender.  Add 1 cup soaking liquid, garlic, chili powder, cumin seeds, oregano, coriander, and 1/4 cup coarse salt; blend to puree, adding more soaking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls if very thick.  Pour puree and remaining soaking liquid into the pot with the beef and onions.  Add tomatoes with juices, 3 bottles of the beer, roasted green chiles, and chopped cilantro stems.  Stir to coat evenly.  Bring chili to a simmer.  Cover and cook 2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring oven to 350F.  Spread corn flour onto a baking sheet and toast for 5 minutes.

Uncover the chili and cook until beef is almost tender, about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.  Add beans; stir to coat, and cook about 45 minutes longer.  Season chili to taste with salt and pepper.  Tilt pot and spoon off any fat from surface of sauce.  Stir in all of the manchego cheese, Mexican chocolate, and toasted corn flour to thicken.  If the chili is still too thin, add a little more of the toasted corn flour.  If the chili is too thick, thin with remaining bottle of beer, otherwise enjoy the beer with the chili.

Can be made up to 2 days ahead.  Cool 1 hour.  Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled.  To reheat, bring to room temperature (about 2 or 3 hours) and over a low heat warm for about 30 minutes before turning heat to medium-high.  Gently stir every 10 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot to prevent sticking.  (Wait—it's probably already stuck from the initial cooking.)  If necessary to thin the chili, use beef stock and/or water.  Beer will give it an odd taste if used during reheating.

Garnishes:  Fresh cilantro leaves, Chopped red onion, Diced avocado, Shredded Monterey Jack cheese, Warm corn and/or flour tortillas.  Cornbread is good, and so are tortilla chips.  I like oyster crackers with it.

This recipe also works well enough with all pork, but do not mix beef and pork.  1-inch chunks of cooked all beef sausage also work well with this recipe.  Just add about 2 pounds of the beef sausage along with the cubed beef, and continue with the recipe.

Considerations for substitutions or additions:  1 cup tequila (omit the beer and add beef stock and/or water to make up the difference) -- 1/2 bottle dry red wine (omit the beer and add beef stock and/or water to make up the difference)

2 pounds pork baby back ribs -- 2 pounds pork loin -- 2 pounds beef tenderloin
2 pounds sausage -- 2 pounds beef short ribs -- 2 pounds tri-tip or sirloin
2 pounds lean ground beef -- 2 pounds lean ground pork

This is a versatile recipe—just do not mix beef and pork, or it will taste strange.  Trust me.

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