Friday, January 27, 2012

Whole Foods Friday: Not quite my mom's chili

Chili was the first full meal I ever cooked. I remember it vividly. It was for a Girl Scout badge and I chose chili because it seemed complicated.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, and I'd helped my mother mix meat loaf plenty of times. I'd watched her cook pork chops and chicken and steak. I peeled vegetables and chopped them and made salad - including the dressing.

Those things seemed so simple. And the meats looked just about the same after they were cooked as they did when they went into the pan - except a little more brown. They weren't transformed, they were just cooked.

But chili was a mystery. Some sort of magic happened when everything was combined in a big pot. Ground beef and some canned goods turned into something that didn't look the same any more. I figured there had to be some kind of magic involved.

When I finished making it, I was sort of disappointed. Ground meat, canned beans, canned tomatoes ... along with some onion and green pepper ... and that was just about it. It was no big mystery. And then elbow macaroni went into the mix, because that's how mom made her chili.

Cranberry beans
Then, to my great embarrassment, my mother burst into tears when I served the chili for dinner. I mean, it was chili, not an academy award. There might have been salad, too, but that wasn't tear-worthy, either. But then she explained that she was all weepy because chili was the first dinner she ever cooked for my father. And here I was, nine years old, making chili.

At that point, I really wished I would have made spaghetti sauce instead.

But that was the chili I grew up with, and I was happy to know how to make it, even if it wasn't as mysterious as I hoped.

It took me many, many years before I could accept the idea of chili without noodles. And many more years before I had chili made with anything except ground beef. Green chili was completely foreign. But although my horizons have expanded, I still like chili that's similar to the one my mother made. Sometimes I even add noodles when I'm feeling particularly nostalgic.

These days, I tend to change the recipe to fit my mood. Sometimes it's spicier, sometimes milder. I use different beans - this time I used cranberry beans - pretty speckled things that are larger than the more typical pinto beans that I use. And sometimes I serve optional toppings at the table.

Chili with Cranberry Beans

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 green pepper, cored and diced
2 jalapeno or serrano peppers, cored, seeded, and finely diced
1 tablespoon chili powder (or to taste)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 pound ground beef
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/2 pound cranberry beans, cooked
1/4 cup masa harina
Salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot. A Dutch oven is perfect. Add the onion, peppers, chili powder, and cumin and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables soften.

Add the ground beef and cook, stirring as needed, until there's no more pink left in the meat.

Add the tomatoes, cooked cranberry beans, and masa harina. Stir to combine and cook, stirring as needed to keep the chili from sticking to the bottom, until the flavors have melded and the sauce has thickened. Taste, and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, if needed, and more chili powder or cumin, if you prefer.

You can serve as soon as the masa harina has thickened the sauce, but it's better after it has simmered longer. An hour is great. This is also great reheated the next day.

For garnishes, I added sour cream, avocado, and shredded cheddar cheese.

For more info about Whole Foods Friday and my partnership with Whole Foods, see the tab at the top.