Chili for a chilly day – along with some philisophical musings on humanity.

January 21, 2009

A few posts ago I mentioned that I had made beans for the first time. Unfortunately, the project intended for the beans was nowhere near completion, so I neglected to mention how they would be used.

Being the daughter of a good Texan, I could hardly make it through this cold winter without making a good pot of chili. I have my mom’s recipe, the ingredients take up an entire page. There are a some cool ingredients (tequila and chocolate) that add depth of flavor. But there are also I few ingredients I didn’t want to use (spicy V8 and Bush’s chili magic). So I had to rework the recipe from scratch.

I have a theory pertaining to cultural food, which is that it is nearly impossible to escape the culinary styles of your home culture. You can adapt recipes from that culture – but they will always be a little off.  I feel that this is caused by the lack of comfort with the ingredients and methods. Anyone can fallow a recipe, but to be able to cook at an improvisational level takes total immersion, or at least total dedication. This is a problem I’ve run into when attempting curries, or Pad Thai. My cooking style is a blend of tex-mex and euro-american traditions. Which means that I cook the onions first, then the garlic, then whatever else, and add the spices last. As much as I admire other culture’s cuisines, most of my attempts seem to be watered down versions of the real thing.

One example that immediately comes to mind, is my experimentation with curries. Last summer I had an ample supply of fresh produce at my disposal. I wanted to make a big batch of vegetable curry that would last me through the week. So I cooked my onions, garlic and hot peppers, and then added the chopped up veggies, and finally added the tomatoes and spices.

It was awful. It tasted like I had drenched the vegetables in curry-spiced-ketchup. The next day I told my boss about my misadventure with curry, at which point she mentioned that with Indian food you always cook the spices and onions first – soon fallowed by the tomatoes.

Since then, my curries have turned out much better.  I’m still a long way off from mastery – but now at least they are enjoyable.

Back to the chili: I thought it would be interesting to use my lesson in Indian cooking, and re-translate it to my cullinary comfort-zone. The beans had soaked all night, during the day I had stewed them in pureed tomatoes, onions, and spices. Instead of going about my usual chili routine, this time I pureed the onions, garlic, habeneros, and spices (a la curry paste). I sauteed the puree in hot oil and I deglazed the pan a few times with apple cider vinegar  pick up all the browned flavor bits on the bottom of the pan.

I removed the cooked paste from my French oven and seared the beef cubes with bacon fat, salt and pepper. I put it all back in the pot, added some tomato paste, and cooked it down until the tomato paste was brick red and fragrant. I deglazed the hell out of it – just for kicks – and stirred in the beans that had been simmering on the back burner.

No chili would be complete without mom’s key ingredient.

As a final touch, I melted down a bar of 72% cacao chocolate (my mom’s trick for adding a smoky, mole-ish flavor).

While I feel that it is very difficult to cross cultural boundaries in the kitchen… I also feel that learning the cooking methods of cultures other than the one(s) you grew up with can only improve your day-to-day cooking. When it comes down to it, a great pot of chili has a lot in common with a great pot of curry – or for that matter a cassoulet or tagine.

I guess you can tie that in to the bigger picture of you want to get philosophical.

But I’m hungry.




  1. I love you! Mom

    Did you mention that I won the chili cook-off? Hmmmmm…..not too shabby.

    Also, that you put a slice of cornbread in the bowl and then scoop the chili onto it?

    Hmmmmm…..I’m hungry!

  2. Cooking a dish from another culture than the one you grew up with is intimidating. That was why it was so nice to join you for cooking the chili. Thanks!

  3. Today was pretty Seattle-ish in Chapel Hill. So I planned to call you for your beef stew recipe, but I didn’t have a crock, so I figured I’d wing it.

    It turned out great, but a lot of it is strikingly similar to curries that I make. But yeah, beef stew made me think of you.

  4. Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

    Making Money $150 An Hour

  5. Please start posting to your blog again! It’s awesome!

    Amy, at http://runswithspatula.blogspot.com/ says “Tell Sweatergirl she needs to blog again…it is a cool blog!”

    • alright alright, I’m working on it!

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