Kitchen Intuition: Chili

Authored By aliceodea

Well, folks, has it been cold enough for you? I just got back from a week in western New York and was happy to have a kitchen to play in while I was there, because as soon as I stepped off the plane into what was (and probably still is) a snowy wonderland, I was thinking about chili. It’s such a warm and hearty dish that doesn’t require a lot of ingredients or take much time to make. I was able to pick up a few things at the store and mix up a big, simple batch of chili that lasted for a few meals. It’s possible you could whip up a batch using just what you can find in the pantry and/or freezer.

If you want to work from a recipe, there are a lot of good ones out there, but you really don’t need one-you can throw some ingredients together and then adjust as needed once you’ve had a taste. Everything is optional (even the tomatoes). Texas chili has no beans, and some meatless versions are all beans. Most versions land somewhere in the middle. You could whip up a batch pretty quickly using prepared ingredients (like canned beans or precooked meat), but the warming effect and delicious aromas are only enhanced and intensified if you let a pot bubble on the stove for a while, drawing people into the kitchen not only for the warmth, but also to find out what’s cooking.

Chili usually starts, as do most great dishes, with some chopped onion and minced garlic; you can also include some diced bell pepper, hot peppers, celery, carrots, cubed butternut squash or whatever other vegetables strike your fancy. Heat some oil or fat in a Dutch oven or soup pot; cook the onion until soft. Add in the other vegetables (except for the garlic) and cook them for another five or 10 minutes until they’ve started to soften.

Next, add the garlic and your spices, and stir everything together while it cooks for a minute or two. The spices might include some combination of chili powder, cumin, oregano, coriander and black pepper, but you also might want to add some cayenne pepper, ground chipotle pepper, paprika and/or a minced chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (available at most grocery stores).

Once the spices have coated the aromatics and vegetables, add your beans, tomatoes and protein. The beans might be precooked or canned navy, black, pinto, red and/or garbanzo beans. For the tomatoes, if they’re not in season, use canned, crushed or diced tomatoes (include the liquid), or some pico de gallo. You might want to heat up your protein in a separate pot if it may need to be drained of some fat first. This could be the case with bacon, ground beef, buffalo, turkey, sausage, or sliced or cubed roast. But other possibilities, like tofu, seitan or leftovers, can be added directly to the pot.

Let things simmer until everything seems cooked through. If at any point you think the pot needs thickening, stir in some tomato paste; if, on the other hand, you want a thinner chili, or if after leaving things to bubble for a while it needs a little extra liquid, pour in some vegetable, chicken or beef stock-or a nip of beer or wine.

Toward the end of cooking, you can add any ingredients that just need to be heated up, like frozen corn, a glug of Sriracha or a bit of cocoa. Simmer until it’s time to serve.

Consider adding a topping or garnish such as shredded cheese, crumbled feta, sour cream, avocados, chopped scallions, cilantro or hot sauce. Serve on its own, on a bed or rice, spread on a hot dog or dribbled over a plate of corn chips.

Finally, I’m going to let you in on my secret ingredient when it comes to chili: wheat berries. They’re a good source of protein, and their texture is perfect for chili-especially if you’re leaving out the meat, because plain, cooked wheat berries have a mouthfeel that is quite similar to that of browned ground beef. Once cooked, they can be added to the chili at the end of cooking and heated through. I keep some wheat berries cooked and stored in the freezer (they’re also quite good for breakfast mixed with yogurt and fruit), and after being inspired by this chili recipe, I now try to have some ready to go whenever I think I might want to put on a pot of chili. You can get wheat berries at most of the larger grocery stores in town or from Sonria Farm, which sells locally grown wheat at the Main Street Farmers Market on many Wednesdays (but not all of them, so it’s a good idea to check ahead of time).

Stay warm, everyone, and the next time the local weather forecasters whip us all into a frenzy about the threat of snow, while you’re grabbing the last gallon of milk or loaf of bread at the store, pick up some chili fixins, too. Or keep some ingredients on hand so you’ll be ready to put a pot on to simmer during the next snow day!

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.