Winter finally arrived this week. I’ve pulled out my fleecy pullovers and leggings, and even the BFF won’t stay outside very long. This is the time of year when I’m glad I’ve stored up hearty soups and stews in my freezer. I’ve got French onion, beef barley, broccoli, butternut squash, and potato-corn chowder. Today, I want something with a little extra heat, the kind that comes from chiles. The kind that heats up your mouth as well as your bones. Today, I’m making chili with black beans and chopped lean chuck, so it’s extra hearty, too.
Chili is one of those syncretized American foods, like pizza, whose closest origins are in Italy but became an entirely different type of food when it got to our shores. Chili began in the southwest, borrowing flavors and ingredients from indigenous people (beans, chiles, spices) and was adapted for mainstream palates. Certainly, Spanish settlers in the area brought stews with tomato bases, garlic, onions, meat, and, the most important ingredient, peppers, much as Creole cuisine developed in Louisiana and the Caribbean with Spanish, French, and African influences. See what wonderful flavors we get when we share?
“Tomato or no tomato?” is the question in some parts of the country. “Meat or no meat?” is the question in others. Even the 1930s editions of Joy of Cooking, that bastion of 20th century American cooking, recommends both, albeit in the form of tomato soup. (Can you imagine anything more pedestrian?) It also recommends that you use either onions or half of a garlic clove! (Can you imagine anything more tasteless?)
Chili is an opportunity to use all kinds of meat, because, with enough other vegetables, herbs, and spices, who knows what you’re eating? Once, when visiting The Veterinarian’s grandmother in Florida, she served us an intensely-flavored chili, sitting back and watching us with a smirk on her face. After we had finished cleaning our bowls, she revealed the secret ingredient, ground elk meat, which his grandfather had shot on a trip to South Dakota.
This is my syncretized version of American chili, using black beans, chiles, garlic, onion, and spices, garnished with corn tortilla chips and cheese. I recommend that you start with one jalapeño and add the chili powder gradually. While I like considerable heat in my chili, The Daughter and others do not. I don’t believe in hot for hot’s sake; the flavors should only be enhanced by the heat, not overpowered by it.
And how do you temper that heat? Sour cream is good, but my favorite is that syncretized beverage, the frozen Margarita, or a frosty beer. Stay toasty, my friends!
Black Bean Chili with meat
½ pound dried black beans, rinsed (see “Note 1” below)
1 quart water
½ pound raw chopped or ground lean beef chuck, or raw ground turkey
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large jalapeño, seeded and minced, use two, if you like a lot of heat (see “Note 2” below)
1 small can tomato paste
1 Tablespoon good quality chili powder (I sometimes just use a pinch of chipotle powder.)
½ Tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Cover beans with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 1-1/2 hours.
Add meat, onion, garlic, jalapeño, tomato paste, chili powder, oregano, salt, and cumin. Simmer 30 minutes, until thickened. Adjust seasonings.
Serve with any of these garnishes on the side: chopped sweet onion or scallions, shredded Monterey Jack or sharp Cheddar cheese, queso fresco, sour cream, tortilla chips, shredded lettuce.
Note 1: This recipe saves you from soaking the beans overnight. Yay! You also can substitute 2 cans of undrained black beans for the dried beans, and use 2 cups of water, but I like the texture of freshly cooked beans. If it is too thin, you can simmer it until thickened, or, if too thick, add a little water. You can also omit the meat entirely.
Note 2: Take care when handling hot peppers. A pair of disposable gloves are helpful. Lay a sheet of paper towel on your counter. Over the towel, slice off the stem end and slit the pepper lengthwise. With the tip of a paring knife, flick the membrane and seeds (where most of the capsaicin — the volatile irritant in peppers — is contained) onto the towel. Roll up and discard, where children and pets can’t get into it. Still wearing the gloves, mince the pepper and add to the chili. Clean up your cutting board and knife, then discard your gloves. I recommend the gloves, because I, invariably, forget that I’ve cut up a pepper without them, and, even hours later, will touch my eyes or nose and burn myself! Maybe you won’t, but I thought I’d pass it along.
How to chop beef: Slice into strips, then whack with a cleaver until it resembles very coarsely ground hamburger.