A passion for chili
As the leaves drop, the rains return and the temperature outdoors becomes markedly colder, we adjust our habits to fit the changing seasons. With the obvious differences like winter coats, checking the car’s antifreeze and that curious smell of the heat switching on after a long absence come more subtle adjustments like our eating habits — or maybe not-so-subtle, if you consider the long holiday season.
Everyone who knows me is aware I am a big fan of summer and all the sunny stuff associated with that bright and cheerful season. But autumn has its own benefits. In addition to the vivid colors of fall, I see dishes served which have been absent for months. I welcome the return of those deciduous comfort foods. My favorite is chili.
Chili is one of those American favorites invoking all sorts of passionate opinions. Beans or not? Meaty or vegetarian? As a guy who doesn’t cook but really enjoys good food, I won’t weigh in on that debate.
But you can read the sidebar dealing with chili’s contested history to understand what I discovered about this tasty dish’s anything-but-mild roots. In the meantime, I corralled three of my favorite local chili chefs to explore — and taste — their outstanding chili creations.
Al Whitaker is a lucky man. At least that’s what everyone keeps telling him. In the summer of 2013, Al received a hip replacement.
Two weeks later, Al tripped and fell, splitting his femur. Gritting his teeth through the pain, Al spent the next two weeks trying to live his normal life. The broken leg was discovered at a scheduled follow-up and the repairs resulted in Al being bedridden for the next three months. Then, just when life was looking up, Al suffered a heart attack on the last day of 2013. “That’s a lousy way to celebrate New Year’s Eve,” said Al. “Trust me.”
To top everything off, during a routine heart scan, thyroid cancer was discovered. “Everyone told me I was lucky I broke my leg so soon after the hip replacement — better for ‘re-replacing’ the hip, lucky it was the bottom of my heart affected — you hardly use that part — and thyroid cancer was among the best to treat.” Said Al. “I’m not sure I can handle much more of being so lucky.”
Lucky or not, Al has an enthusiastic appreciation for life underscored by his recent travails. A natural bon vivant, Al sees the little things with a clarity most of us would envy. This appreciation for life extends to Al’s culinary tastes, as evidenced by his heavenly chili. Al’s meaty chili highlights the benefits of the Maillard reaction as the seared meats give the chili its character. For those who believe chili should never contain beans, this version can easily be adapted to accommodate. With combination of fresh and dried chiles, Al's interpretation showcases a fruitiness both hearty and satisfying; an outstanding chili. But where Al really shines is in his vegetarian interpretation of this classic American dish. With layers of serious flavor, this variety boasts a meatiness in its body that will challenge any meat-based recipe. “The meaty texture comes from garbanzo beans,” said Al. This chili’s substantial body lightens up as a subtle smokiness from its chili paste mix leads into a gentle acidity from the recipe’s vinegar and bourbon. An avowed meat lover, I’ll go so far as to claim Al’s vegan chili is among the best I’ve ever sampled.
As an added bonus, Al’s chilis — both the meaty and vegan (yes, it’s really vegan) versions — will be available for sale leading up to the civil war game the day after Thanksgiving. “This is a benefit for the YAHOO Mexico mission in the spring,” said Al, whose kids, Mac and Scout, participate in the annual trip to build houses for needy families south of the border. At ten bucks a quart, both of these chilis are a steal. “A quart will serve four people,” Al said. My own guess is you’ll love it so much you’ll regret buying just one. To order either of Al’s remarkable chilis for delivery the week of the civil war game, call 503-560-3499 and leave the following information: name, address, phone number, type of chili (vegetarian or meat) and whether you’re a Duck or Beaver fan.
Corey Rich simply wanted to win the chili cook-off at his church. Armed with little more than Google and a fierce competitive spirit, Corey set out to find the world’s best chili recipe. “He’s not completely useless in the kitchen,” said Corey’s wife, Tara, laughing. “But he’s no Emeril.” Tara said Corey is great at manning the barbecue in the summer. “And he really does help out in the kitchen,” she added. One thing is certain: Corey has an outstanding chili recipe.
With a characteristic deep red color, Corey’s chili is built on lamb and chorizo and a special reduction. “The secret is chicken broth and ancho chilés,” said Corey. Along with cayenne pepper, the chilés and broth are simmered and puréed, rendering a bright red base. Add the meats and the rest of the spices, and this hearty chili is spicy and satisfying without overpowering. “This is a meaty chili with a good zip,” said Tara. She’s right. The flavors of lamb and chorizo fused with ancho chilés are immediately evident, followed by a spicy heat that is amiably insistent. Corey likes to serve his chili with Juanita’s tortilla chips and cornbread.
Corey’s kids love the chili, too. “It’s got a good heat,” said Whitney, 17. She said her dad’s chili is spicy without being too much. “It’s my second-favorite chili,” said Cooper, Corey’s 15-year-old son. In fact, Cooper cast his vote in the church’s contest against his father’s chili, costing him the contest by one vote. “That’s something I’ll remember when it’s time for Cooper to get a car,” said Corey. Cooper might yet live to regret his vote.
My mother was born and raised in Fullerton, California. Two years after my mom’s birth and a short twenty miles away, my mother-in-law, Gayle Nielsen, entered the world in Long Beach. Perhaps because they shared similar temporal, geographic and socioeconomic circumstances, their cooking was remarkably similar. I was delighted to discover my mother-in-law’s chili was virtually indistinguishable from my own late mother’s.
Made with ground beef or stew meat and beans, Gayle’s chili simmers all day and is a family favorite in my household. “It’s pretty simple,” said Gayle, who had no recipe card to show me. “It’s all in my head.”
Simple or not, Gayle’s chili is hearty and filling, the perfect low-maintenance meal for a chilly fall or winter evening. Gayle’s chili tastes best served with fresh chopped onions and grated cheddar cheese. “Some people like sour cream,” said Gayle. “But I prefer it without.” I agree with Gayle on that point.