Thursday, November 21, 2002

Chili Changes: Old traditions and new

Old traditions and new mingle in a bowl of spicy comfort food
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
(unpublished so far -- except for on this blog)

Chunks of meat stewed with chili peppers: that’s the essence of traditional chili, a dish with ancient origins in Mexico and points south. Some accounts credit the cattle drivers of the Old West with inventing chili – as the story goes, cowboys pounded together dried beef and chili peppers, then stewed up the mix while on the trail. But as chef and writer Rick Bayless, widely regarded as this nation’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, points out in his book “Authentic Mexican,” the idea is farfetched – both ethnocentric and sexist. For millennia, human beings on the American continents have been eating both meat and chili peppers. The first one to put them in a cooking pot together was assuredly not a white male.

Chili does come to us from the Southwest border regions where Mexican and American cultures and cuisines mingle, but its roots go back centuries, through generations of cooks who learned how to soften both the toughness of meat and the chili pepper’s fierce flavor with hours of slow cooking.

History has the demimondaines of old San Antonio dishing out chili from nighttime open air stalls near the Alamo. By the late 19th century, the fiery hash was a Texas specialty, and the state sponsored a chili exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This became the venue through which chili – like the Ferris wheel, diet soda and Juicy Fruit gum – entered the American mainstream.

Beans, tomatoes and even ground beef are twentieth-century, middle American introductions. Authentic or no, I like beans in my chili. Their starch thickens the broth, and they add a wonderful, creamy flavor. But when there’s time for the additional prep and the slow cooking, the traditional chunks of beef have a lot over ground. Chunks add a rustic quality, and they’re fun to eat and prepare. I enjoy the sensuousness of cutting a big slab of meat into pieces, of seeing how individual and distinct each piece remains, how impossible it is to make them perfectly uniform. Note that you need a good, sharp knife for this to be fun instead of toil. A heavy cleaver is ideal, but a 6" or 8" chef’s knife will work well, too.

[The recipe]
Here’s my favorite chili recipe, a full-flavored stew I’ve tinkered with over the years to incorporate various elements from Mexican cookery. Note the absence of commercially mixed “chili powder”! About the ingredients: Chiles anchos aren’t hot; they add a dark, gentle sweetness to long-cooking dishes. In Mexico, the rich, dusky flavor of cocoa is used in many dishes, not just in sweet desserts; here, it plays against the chiles anchos beautifully. The earthy, faintly tangy herb epazote (available dried from Penzey’s) goes well with beans. Masa harina is a finely ground corn flour. And the red pepper flakes are the only hot ingredient: adjust according to your preference. For me, the amount of heat given here is pleasantly peppery. However, sensitivity to capsaicin, the hot stuff in chili peppers, varies among individuals and through time.

2 pounds beef, cut in 2" cubes. You want a tough, cheap cut, like shank, chuck or brisket, for a slow-cooked, tender stew.
2 Tbs. oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1-2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 Tbs. epazote, dried and fine
1 Tbs. Mexican oregano
1 Tbs. cumin, ground
1 Tbs. cilantro (fresh or dried)
1 Tbs. cocoa powder (unsweetened)
5 (or one package) dried chile ancho pods, stems removed
2 (15 oz.) cans kidney beans, including juice
2 cans (14 oz) tomatoes (Diced, stewed, whole, or whatever you like)
1 cup hot water

2-4 Tbs. masa harina ( or corn starch) mixed in some cold water (optional)

In a big (six-quart), heavy pot set on medium-high heat, add oil and brown the meat in batches, transferring to a bowl. Reduce heat to medium-low, add onions and garlic and return the meat to the pot. Simmer 10 minutes, covered. Add all other ingredients (except the masa, which is used for thickening at the end). Simmer gently, covered, another 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. When the meat is tender, stir in the masa harina and water and simmer for a couple of minutes. You can garnish the servings with a sprig of fresh cilantro. This is a delicious one-dish meal in itself, but for a super-hearty repast that’ll keep you satisfied for hours, ladle over a wedge of your favorite corn bread.