THUNDER BAY – FOOD NOW – Although red is the color of Santa’s suit, poinsettias and Rudolph’s nose, a “bowl of red” is probably not what springs to mind when you contemplate Christmas dinner. But chili has many selling points as a holiday repast. It’s a one-pot meal that can feed a crowd, and it tastes best when made a day or two in advance — meaning that even the cook can relax and enjoy the feast. And although I never imagined that chili would grace our Midwestern holiday table, I thank my lucky Lone Stars that the official dish of Texas made its way into my life and onto our extended family’s Christmas menu.
It happened as a happy confluence of events.
The first part has a history that probably goes back to our ancient ancestors.
Traditionally, butchering of large animals was done in the early winter, after they had eaten their fill all spring, summer and fall, and before the lean times of winter. And in pre-refrigeration days, if you butchered in winter when the whole world’s a gigantic freezer, your meat would keep for months.
My father follows in the well-trodden paths of his Dutch and German forebears, who also butchered animals every winter. And so in early December he sends a few of his grass-fed cattle to the meat locker a few miles down the road. A couple of weeks later, we are bringing home boxes of frozen beef, wrapped in white butcher paper. Sometimes there is not quite enough freezer space for everything, so we use some of the meat right away.
But it wasn’t until I started sharing my annual quarter of beef with my Texas-born boyfriend that the Illinois-beef-meets-Texas-chili marriage was made.
I assumed that such an odd coupling must be a first, but it was actually made more than a hundred years ago, in 1909, as I discovered on Linda Stradley’s excellent site, “What’s Cooking America.” Different spelling Stradley notes that in Springfield, Ill., an hour or so down the road from my father’s grazing cattle, people take their chili very seriously.
“They even spell it differently than the rest of the United States,” she notes. “This peculiar spelling of ‘chilli’ in Springfield originated with the founder of the Dew Chilli Parlor.
Legend has it that the Dew’s owner, Dew Brockman, quibbled with his sign painter over the spelling and won after noting that the dictionary spelled it both ways. Other folks believe the spelling matches the first four letters in Illinois.”
That’s the first I’d ever heard of Dew Brockman, who may or may not be a long lost relative, but I am sure he would agree that the Brockman family Illinois beef and Texas chili are a heavenly match. Cuts from well-used muscles such as arm, shoulder or chuck roast love the long, slow simmer with the secret chili spice mix. We also add some spicy pork sausage and a few slices of fatty bacon to carry the flavors that gradually intensify over the four to six hours of simmering.
By the time we take the pot off the fire, the spices permeate not only the meat, but the whole house, with warmth and good cheer.
I do realize that any talk of Texas chili, particularly made in central Illinois, and with pork added, is bound to get me into trouble. (At least we don’t add beans!) Chili tastes are regional, personal and often inflexible.
But Christmas is a good time to put partisan bickering aside and enjoy a big beefy bowl of red with or without pork, or beans.
We spend most of Christmas Eve making the big pot of chili for about two dozen relatives to enjoy on Christmas Day because, as the writer John Steele Gordon notes, “Chili is much improved by having had a day to contemplate its fate.” And its fate is to be enjoyed by the holiday crowd, including a red-clad Santa, whose belly shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of chili.
This version of the Texas classic tastes intensely of its two main ingredients, beef and chili powder. But it also has some pork, onions, carrots, garlic and a can of crushed tomatoes because we like the way those ingredients round the flavors out.
You are welcome to keep or delete them as you wish.
Prep time: 45 minutes Cook time: 5 hours
Total time: 5 hours 45 minutes Yield: About 20 servings — and even better as leftovers.
7 tablespoons chili powder (Gebhardt’s brand preferred) (about 1 tablespoon per pound of meat)
2 tablespoons each of cumin and cayenne
3 tablespoons oregano
Salt and pepper
3 to 3Â½ pounds arm, shoulder, chuck or sirloin roast
2 pounds hanger steak 1Â½ pounds cubed steak
1Â½ pounds spicy pork sausage (chorizo, jalapeÃ±o, andouille etc.)
6 slices of fatty bacon, chopped fine
3 medium onions, chopped
4 medium carrots, chopped very fine
8 garlic cloves, smashed or minced
6 hot peppers, 2 each of habanero, serrano, jalapeÃ±o peppers, diced, seeds and all
1 large green pepper, diced
2 bottles of peach or apple flavored beer
2 cups beef or chicken broth
2 tablespoons miso paste (red or brown) to add umami
1 (16-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons masa harina (optional)
In a small bowl, mix together the chili powder, cumin, cayenne, oregano, and salt and pepper.
The roasts and steak may be cut into bite-sized cubes while slightly frozen, making in unnecessary to cut up the braised cuts once they’re done.
Trim the beef of any excess fat and season heavily with the spice mixture. Sear on all sides in a heavy skillet. Set aside.
Put the chopped bacon in a very large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, and allow the fat to melt.
Brown the onions and carrots in the bacon fat until soft.
Then add the garlic and peppers and cook for a few more minutes.
Deglaze the skillet with the beer. Add the broth, miso and tomatoes. Then add the browned meat, and enough broth or beer to cover the meat. Cover the pot and cook slowly for 4 to 6 hours, until the meat is falling-apart tender.
If you have masa harina, stir it in to help thicken the chili and add a bit of flavor. Cook for another 20 to 30 minutes.
Taste and add more salt, pepper, or chili powder if needed.
Remove from heat.
Chill overnight and reheat for even better flavor.
Serve with white rice.
Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili
Lady Bird Johnson would share this quick and simple Texas chili recipe with her guests.
Prep time: 30 minutes Cook time: 1 hour Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes Yield: About 10 servings
Ingredients 4 pounds chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
6 teaspoons chili powder (or more, if needed)
1 Â½ cups canned whole tomatoes
2 to 6 dashes hot sauce, or to taste
2 cups hot water
Salt to taste
Directions Place meat, onion, and garlic in a large heavy pan or Dutch oven. Cook until light in color. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, hot sauce and 2 cups hot water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 1 hour. Skim off the fat while cooking. Salt to taste.
By Terra Brockman (Zester Daily)