15 April 2009

A Chili Day in China

March's lion decided to rear its ferocious head in April. We woke up this morning to thunder and lightening, a cold wind, and steady drizzle. But, you know what they say, April showers bring... Why is spring so full of cliches? I think we try to wax poetic about all the new life budding, bursting, blossoming, and blooming around us. Today brought a nice dose of moisture to brighten up the brown landscape. It also brought cold weather reminiscent of February. Cold weather makes me think of two things--wool sweaters and chili.

I paid visits to both our little school store for vegetables (and got ripped off) and Jusco for less common items (like Tide detergent and cheese). I used to make chili and spaghetti sauce from cans of stewed/diced/chopped/etc. tomatoes. In the US, you can get them just about any way now except upside down. I've seen cans that even purport to have all the spices needed for chili or spaghetti sauce. While easy in a pinch and cost effective when tomato prices skyrocket in the winter, in China, these cans are a high-priced commodity, shipped in from capitalist countries overseas. With tomatoes available fairly reasonably year-round, I've taken to making sauces from a bag of fresh tomatoes. It's really just one extra step, cutting up tomatoes instead of cutting open a can, and saves you from chemicals, preservatives, and that can that's been sitting on the supermarket shelf for two years.

While the tomatoes simmer in their own liquid, I brown and season ground beef with salt and chili powder. Dump that into the tomatoes, then sautee chopped onions, carrots, and green pepper in some oil, followed by diced garlic once the onions have softened. Though not traditionally a chili vegetable, I think the carrot adds a nice non-acidic sweetness and lends some brightness and vitamins. If you like chili that is simply beef, or beef and beans, my recipe is not for you. It's chock full of chunks of vegetables and tomatoes.

Just before the vegetables are done in the frying pan, grind some fresh cumin seeds and toss those with the vegetables along with a good dose (I mean a couple tablespoons) of chili powder and some salt. It's best to warm the cumin and chili powder in a frying pan
to enhance their flavor and aromas before submerging the spices in the tomato sauce .

Now that everything is happily bubbling away in the tomato sauce, forget about the chili for awhile. When you remember, or catch a whiff of that fabulous goodness, give it a stir. Once it's been simmering for about 40 minutes, it's time to get out the secret ingredients. I learned this trick years ago from my Aunt Georgene actually. We had chili at her home and it was fantastic! Her secret, which I've adopted, is to add a tablespoon each of brown sugar and cocoa powder. It may sound strange, but it will take your chili to the next level or even out of this world, and also deepen the red of the tomatoes.

After an hour or so, add a can of beans (or two, depending on how much gas your significant other/family can handle), any kind you like, though I usually use red kidney beans or black beans. Let these cook in for about 20 minutes and you're done. Chili is so simple and soooo satisfying, especially on a blustery day.

Turner and I like to mix in grated cheese and cilantro and have tortillas alongside for dunking. My grandma used to make a classic Midwestern dish of chili mac, adding macaroni to the finished product and a good helping of cheese. I like chili just about any way but have yet to find someone who makes it better than me. I think my mom comes pretty close though.

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