Thursday, October 13, 2016

The First Chili of the Season

The days are getting colder, here in Philadelphia, and the nights are drawing in, and that means the season for chili has arrived. I made the first pot of the season yesterday. Let’s talk about chili in general for a bit, and then about that pot.

I love chili, because it’s a process, not a recipe. Stew is always forgiving, but I find chili, more than anything else I regularly make, suffers nothing from cooking and cooking until the balance is just right. I can always sprinkle in a few spices and let them mellow for twenty minutes if things aren’t perfect yet. So, what is that balance? For me, chili is about darkness, spice and umami. I like a bit of tomato, but I don’t want that dominating. You need sweetness, but just the balance the acid of tomato, or the bitterness of dried chilies, too much and you wander into baked beans. Make sure it’s thick enough: tomato paste, flour and brown your meat beforehand, make a roux for something vegetarian. It needs to be rich. It needs to warm you up, from your stomach up through your cheeks and deep into your bones.

So, yesterday’s chili. It was ‘vegetarian’. I am a terrible vegetarian. Without a nutritional or ethical commitment to avoid animals, what I usually mean by vegetarian is “I used bacon, but nothing more substantial”, or “The primary protein isn’t animal.” This was one of those: a sweet potato chili with three kinds of beans.

As a preliminary, I peeled the sweet potatoes and dropped some of the peel into the blender with dried chilies, ancho and costeƱo, to soak in hot water until I could blend them up. Pureeing some skin’s a great way to use sweet potato without making things too bright, and dried chilies build a depth of flavor for a chili without beef. I rendered out some bacon in the Dutch oven first. It takes a lot to convince me not to put bacon in my chili these days. Pulled out the bacon and drop in onion and pepper I chopped while it rendered. Since everything stews, I didn’t need to cook them all the way, just to get some color. I crushed in some garlic, my initial spices (chili powder, smoked paprika and oregano), then a bit of flour to take up the extra bacon fat and thicken things. I took up the roux and deglazed with the pureed pepper and sweet potato skin, and a little can of diced tomato. Some tomato paste to thicken and deepen the flavor, a few chipotles in adobo for the spice. I used pinto, pink and black beans for this chili, and I left the liquid from one can in as well, to have enough for the sweet potato. I left the sweet potato out so it wouldn’t get too soft, though I didn’t really need to, it turned out.

Checked back after twenty minutes and the veggies were pretty soft, so dropped in sweet potato in little cubes and just let it keep simmering. The sweet potatoes weren’t cutting the bitterness of the dried chilies enough at first check, so I put in some honey, and some coriander to brighten things a tad. On the last taste, I needed more spice, so I put in some ground chipotle. That was that. Simmered it until the potatoes were perfect and let it be. One of my best, I think, and I’m pretty proud of my chili.

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