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Chili Weather
(Food #9, August 10, 2002)

   Our Florida summer has become fall. It's still hot, but the air has taken on that odd cool edge that tells me cooler weather isn't far away. The sky, which is usually hazy from the high humidity, has become clear; and while it's still plenty wet, at least I can't see it hovering over the ground like a pall or a bad case of cataracts.
   When the air clears like this, and the mornings turn cool and dry, my thoughts turn, naturally, to chili.

Chili at Church
As if in answer to a prayer, my church scheduled a chili supper for Sunday evening after services. It was to be one of those bring a bowl of your own favorite brew and share it with everyone else affairs.
   It has been over a year since my partner, Chuck, and I won our last chili contest. By the end of that contest I had cooked and sampled so much chili that I didn't care if I never saw any red meat dishes again.
   Our first chili supper was postponed, then the second, the following week. Everyone but I seemed to get the word, so I was stuck twice with generous pots of extremely good chili. I shared it with friends and took it to work for lunch, and generally found friendly ways to get rid of it.
   The third supper was a GO, and I was looking forward to sampling someone else's cooking for a change. That's when I made a startling observation that has made me do a lot of thinking about my cooking, in general, and my chili, in particular. Very few people set even moderately high standards for the flavor of the foods they prepare for themselves at home!
   The chilis at the supper that night were all hamburger-based. More than half included beans. Most were thin and soupy. I tried four that night, four that generally tended toward red instead of brown. The first two were fair; one was almost identical in taste to average supermarket canned chili—you know, stale cumin and red grease. The other was a soupy, slightly tangy brew that reminded me of Cincinnati chili. It wasn't too bad. The last two I tried, though, introduced me to new lows in the chilimakers' art. One had no taste at all. It was warm, wet, somewhat textury, but absolutely without flavor. I attribute that to cooking hamburger chili far too long with either very old or very little chili powder in the brew. The second was actually bad. I couldn't spit it out, and I couldn't criticize it, but I sure wanted to do both.
   What had I learned? First: that there is a very wide tolerance among most people for the quality of their food. Carrying that thought to a logical extreme, is it possible that people are more concerned about the cost of a meal than about the subtle seasonings and rich flavors? Second: why do I bother trying to perfect my chili recipes?
   I admit it; I've become a chili snob!
   For my chili that night I decided to introduce my new recipe, a brew I had won contests with, probably the most sensual, best colored, most luxurious chili I've ever made. It is also the very simplest. I knew I had done it just right when I discovered my pot empty of meat, and I heard only comments like, "it's really spicy, isn't it!", and "it's pretty hot, don't you think!" Those are sure signs that the chili lowbrows have met something new and unexpected.

The Idea
A New Recipe
   After having made chili for years, I wanted something better. Gradually the flavor of my recipes had improved, and I had learned a few nice tricks that had made my chili better (go easy on the tomatoes—this is supposed to be a chile dish!) What I really wanted was chili that transcended a seasonal curiosity to a stable culinary experience. The recipes all worked; Spider Cañon™ chili powder is still the best I've tasted; the improvement would be in the meat and the preparation.
country ribs
I like country ribs best
   In my new recipe I left the meat whole, large. I used steaks, chops, ribs, boneless and bone-in, pork, beef. They were all good, but probably the ribs have been the best.
   I removed tomatoes and celery entirely and concentrated only on meat, chiles, onions, and the chili powder. Eventually the onions and chiles went. The emphasis would be on the meat. It was an idea whose time had come; but it was chili blasphemy! I could hear the good ol' boys in Catron County cussing that pesky Easterner and checking their pieces.
   The result, in my way of thinking, is elegant and classically simple. Hey, I'll let the recipe speak for itself:
    Spider Cañon's heartiest chili yet!
  • 2 lbs. ribs (country pork or beef, boneless or bone-in)
  • 2 pkgs. Spider Cañon™ Southwest Red chili seasoning
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tsp. salt.
   Trim and discard all the gristle and the largest pieces of fat from the meat and render it in a hot skillet or pot until you have about a tablespoon of hot fat. Sear the meat in the skillet, with the top off. Continue to turn and cook the meat until any liquid it gives off has almost entirely boiled away. Remove the meat.
   If chili without vegetables is a little too austere for you, add one medium strong, yellow onion, chopped coarsely. Cook until the onion is transparent. Add the spices and stir. Continue cooking for a few minutes until the spices are toasty. Add the water, and return the meat to the skillet.
   When the chili returns to a boil, reduce the heat to just simmering and cook for two or three hours; or, even better, put the chili in a crock pot and cook it for about six to eight hours on "low."
   About one hour before serving (two hours for the crock pot), remove the top of the pot, add about half of the salt. Just before serving, add the remaining salt, taste, and season to taste. Try to keep it just on the light side of salty.

   Serve the chili on plates, not bowls, maybe over rice, and with fresh chopped onions or green onions on the side. Please, if you like beans, serve them on the side, not in the brew. Give each guest two or three ribs and ladle a little sauce on them for flavor. The action here is in the meat—just treat it as if it were fine steak or roast.
chili serving

Notes It's your chili, you can make it any way you want, but here are a few recommendations:
  1. Use at least one ounce of chili powder for each pound of trimmed meat. The chili powder should be very fresh if you want the clean, fresh taste of great chili.
  2. Try to do without tomatoes, but if you use them, use no more than about half the weight of the meat. If you use canned tomatoes, you should simmer the chili at least two hours to smooth out the flavors.
  3. Slow cooked chili is great, but you can cook it too long. Hamburger cooks to death very easily. Use a skillet and cook no more than about three hours. About six to eight hours is right for crock pot chili made with cuts of meat—go by the tenderness of the meat. This long cooking also mellows the harshness of hot chiles in your brew. The chili will still be hot, but it will have lost that throat-scratchy edge.
  4. If you've used enough chili powder you shouldn't have to use any thickener in your chili. The best thickener is to cook it the last two hours with the top off the pot.
Simpler is better!

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