Friday, February 22, 2013

Create Your Ideal Chili: Spicy, Vegan, or for the Kids

Chili is a taste-and-season-as-you-cook kind of food (at least in my kitchen) and as a result, no two batches turn out exactly alike but they are always good. Since each region of the US has a different idea of what constitutes great chili and there are already enough recipes out there, I don't intend here to offer a full how-to; instead I will only provide a few tips for pleasing a crowd of diverse chili lovers and a few tricks for building those flavor options.

The problem in our house is that we have a few family members who don't care for meat, some who won't eat beans, and others who can't have anything spicy.  Sure it is easy enough to make a bland, ho-hum bowl of chili just to feed the group, but I want a cumin-rich, ancho-infused, make my eyes sweat bowl of chili, especially in the dead of winter, and on this one I'm not alone! I've overcome this spicy vs non-spicy battle for kitchen supremacy before, so I simply employed old tricks. 

This is my spicy version. I start by reconstituting a few dried Mexican chilies in a bottle of beer, brought to a simmer and then allowed to steep for 10-20 minutes. I almost always have ancho and guajillo peppers on hand, since I use them as often as I can work them into any broth because they give a depth of flavor that is unparalleled .

I strain the seeds out (and remove any stems) then use a hand blender to emulsify the remaining peppers and liquid. Next brown the ground beef (3-4 lb) adding onion and garlic, drain off the grease and add the pepper mixture as the base for all the rest of my ingredients including one big yellow onion cut fine, and 3-4 cloves of garlic. I toast and grind the cumin in a second pan, along with other dried ancho chili powder and add cayenne. This batch had a jalepeno and a habenero cooked in as well. I use a can of Rotel tomato and chili and stick blend a can of diced tomatoes (because I'm dealing with veggie-averting teenagers) and they add a nice sweetness to the chili with this method. I typically add salt in bullion form instead of a shaker because it enhances the overall flavor, one cube of chicken and a cube of beef are usually all that is needed. This meaty version has no beans and only the smallest bits of chopped peppers, but it has a full-bodied, full-on chili flavor.

This is the kid version chili. I'm a bit sneaky with this one since I want to provide them the fiber of beans and the vitamins from the tomatoes but I don't want to hear any complaints so I make them undetectable.  This version gets most of its flavor from a taco seasoning packet but I boost it up with my same cumin and ancho pepper mix from the spicier version, after all, it needs to actually taste like chili, those young taste-buds are simply in training.  The hamburger is browned (2-3 lbs), grease is drained, and spices added, about 2/3 of a taco seasoning mix, a couple cloves of garlic, the blended tomatoes, and a can of refried beans. Taste and season as needed.  Sometimes a teaspoon of sugar is also added. I leave out the onions in this one because the kids think they don't like them.
This option is completely vegan to please those who want more beans than meat or who simply eat vegetarian.  The idea here is the ability to create your own bowl of chili with the proportions of beans to meat that please your palate. So this vegan version starts out with onion and garlic similar to the rest, it shares that last 1/3 of the taco seasoning packet and I kick up the spice in this one a bit with more cumin and ancho, but also add in a jalapeno.  Black beans are my favorite and since the contrast is so nice I also add in white northern, but an additional can of kidney would be beautiful too (all rinsed before adding to the pot.) Corn would also be a great addition since my goal with the vegan version is to make it as enticing in color combinations as possible, so it also gets yellow and red peppers, and two cans Rotel tomatoes with chilies.   This version does not have the richness of the meat version but when they are mixed together, or my favorite, side-by-side in the bowl, there is a lovely contrast of textures and flavors from combining the two. 

No matter what version of chili is your favorite, at our house, these are the mandatory condiments for any great bowl of chili!  The front bowl here is one onion, a small red pepper, and one jalapeno, all finely chopped, then add a handful of cilantro finely minced and the juice of one lime and salt to taste.  This combo with the crushed corn chips is very satisfying from the vegan perspective, but add in that sour cream and it is a real home run!  I am not typically a cheese fan, but the kids love it, so it gets served too.  The fresh onion mixture however is a must as it just makes everything pop, I highly suggest it for your next chili experience.
It is true that this method requires three pots to make chili, but for feeding a crowd with a number of diverse dietary requirements, this method can't be beat. The ability to combine spicy with the not so spicy, or add beans or not, really satisfies just about everybody at our house and washing those extra pans is certainly worth not having to listen to any complaints (except perhaps that I've made them do the dishes!)

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