I mentioned the other day that I was planning to make chili for the Superbowl, and specifically to make my Grandma’s Chili. After posting my explanation about Grandma’s recipe, I wound up in several conversations with friends about my grandma’s way of cooking, and the nature of old family recipes. One friend had a great way to describe what I was trying to explain: for a lot of people, a recipe isn’t a list of ingredients in precise amounts, it’s a process.
Such a process recipe is my recollection of Grandpa’s cornbread. Approximately equal amounts of corn meal and flour, with some sugar, baking powder, salt, an egg or two (depending on how big a batch you’re making), some butter and some milk. Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly first, soften the butter, add the eggs, milk, and butter, blend. If the texture and thickness isn’t right, add some more cornmeal, or some more milk. Pour into a greased pan and bake about 20-25 minutes at 400-ish degrees.
For this batch of chili, I started with the beans. We had a bag of pinto beans that have been in the cupboard for a while. I like to make chili with at least two kinds of beans, so I bought a bag of black beans. With dry beans, you have to start the day before you want chili. Saturday afternoon I rinsed off the beans, put them in a large pot, and poured in enough cold water to cover the beans, plus a couple of inches. Cover, put in the fridge, and let is soak for several hours. Going away to do something else helps.
We went shopping. Both of us were overdue for haircuts. My shoes are starting to get a bit worn in the soles, so we also went shoe shopping. Michael tweeted a picture of the Pokemon machine while we were there, and someone asked if he’d pick up a particular one. And so on, until we had dinner, then came home.
After the beans have been soaking at least four hours, but not a lot more than six, strain the whole bunch through a colander, pouring the water down the drain. The water should be the same color as your beans. Rinse the beans again, dump them back in the pot, cover them with cold water, plus a few inches (they should have swelled a bit, and you will notice the new water level needs to be higher). Put the pot back in the fridge and leave it to soak more overnight.
Three to four hours before you want to have chili, repeat that pour, rinse, and recover process one more time, but this time you’ll put the pot on the stove on medium heat, because now you’re cooking.
A half hour to an hour later, start cooking the bacon. Grandma would use whatever bacon she had. I’ve found that I prefer the results with thick-sliced uncured bacon. It seems to make more hot grease. The amount of bacon you use can vary. If she was making a small batch, Grandma might only use a couple of slices. I had a whole package. Put it in a large frying pan and started it cooking. Again, medium heat, maybe a touch above medium. You want to cook it down to extremely crispy, to get all the fat out of it you can, but you don’t want to scorch the grease.
While it is cooking down, chop up your onions and peppers. Because I was trying to keep it mild so my husband could eat it, I picked a Walla Walla sweet onion, one poblano chili, and a bunch of mini bell peppers. Yes, bell peppers can make a very nice chili. I chopped everything up, then waited for the bacon to get thoroughly crisp. (I think I swapped out a load of laundry; I was really multitasking Sunday!)
Once the bacon is crisp, remove it, but leave the grease in the pan. Dump in the chopped onion and peppers, stir around a bit. Add sea salt, paprika, and black pepper. A touch of cayenne can go in here, but I find if you start adding the cayenne too early, you wind up with chili that doesn’t seem very spicy when you first taste it, but starts to burn about a minute later. I’m sure someone can explain the chemistry for that. I wait until much later in the process to add the cayenne (if at all, if you are going for mild chili, or you have any of the hotter chili peppers, don’t bother!).
Let the peppers and onions saute for a few minutes. Then start adding the meat. There are many ways to go here. Grandma often went with just plain hamburger, though she also frequently blended hamburger and ground pork sausage. This time I used a tube of ground chicken breakfast sausage, and a smaller tube of reduced fat ground pork sausage. Break up the meat and scatter it around, stirring and letting it start absorbing some of that bacon grease. Cover and let it saute a bit.
If you’re chopping your own tomatoes, this is a good time to do that. Otherwise, give everything a little time to cook. I bought a big can of organic diced tomatoes, because that’s what the store had out on an end cap to one of the aisles that were completely jam-packed midday Saturday. However you’re doing the tomatoes, pour them into the frying pan with the meat and peppers once the meat is all browned. Stir it all together, and as the mixture comes back to a boil, break up the larger chunks of the meat. I put four or five cloves of garlic through the press into the mix, added some more salt, lots of paprika, and lots of black pepper. Now you want to bring everything up to a boil.
Once both the beans and the frying pan contents are bubbling really good, it’s time to start putting it together. I got a third, larger pan, poured half of the meat and peppers mixture in, then started spooning the beans over with a slotted spoon. This part is tricky, because sometimes you wind up with a lot of liquid in the beans, and you may get a more watery chili than you want. So I got most of the beans into the third pot, stirred them together, poured the rest of the meat and peppers mixture in, and stirred it and watched it cook for a minute or two, then I poured enough of the bean liquid in until the consistency looked like what I wanted. Get the rest of the beans by straining with a colander if you need to, and add them to the mixture. Finally, crumble up the crispy bacon and mix it in, too. Michael had taken some of the bacon to make a sandwich midway. As I said, the amount various, and once it’s been cooking in with the rest for a bit, you don’t usually notice the pieces of the bacon.
Taste the whole thing now, and start adding spices. I put in a very small amount of cayenne, more salt, more paprika, black pepper, and a little celery salt. I might have ground some green pepper corns and sprinkled a bit of cinnamin. I taste, add spices, stir, wait a minute taste again, add more, and repeat several times. There’s a very weird, almost zen like process to the spicing. You have to add what seems right. I know that is a very frustrating thing to tell some people. Unfortunately, if you don’t know how to do this sort of thing already, you really need to make yourself experiment by cooking foods you are familiar with, and adding spices you don’t normally use, so that you start to get an idea how they can work together. If you don’t believe me, someday let me make you one of my casseroles seasoned with cloves, fennel, cumin, and cardamom (among other things).
Once you think you have the spices right, stir everything one more time, and cover to let simmer until it’s time to eat.
My cornbread from scratch came out only mediocre. I thought I was just out of practice (I haven’t made cornbread from scratch in a few years). Michael suspects that the flour in the cannister in the kitchen is actually self-rising flour, since he could taste the excess baking powder that hadn’t processed. I think to test the theory I’m going to have to make a tiny batch of drop biscuits with this flour without putting in any baking soda or powder in the mix, and see what happens.
The chili came out as a nice mild chili. Michael assured me it was tasty without being too hot. Sometimes I’ve made what I thought was mild chili and it was too much for him. I picked up a medium-ish hot mango salsa while I was shopping, and dumped a big spoonful or two in each of my bowls. I always recommend having some shredded cheese and sour cream (the fat free sour cream tastes exactly like high-fat sour cream if you put a big spoonful in the chili and stir it in). Those last two are especially handy if you happen to make chili that’s a bit too spicy for one of your guests.
As I mentioned before, I don’t do as much improvising on the chili when I’m making what I call Grandma’s Chili, because I’m going for a particular taste I remember. I have, though, made a completely onionless and garlic-free version of this (one of my best friends is allergic), that tasted wonderful. The secret? Chop an entire stalk of celery, including the leafy bits, and have at least four different kinds of peppers. Use the celery in place of the onion. You’ll be surprised how few people even realize there is no onion in the chili.
It was a good chili. I had a great Superbowl (it helped that my Seahawks won the game decisively).