Question: When did chili become the dish of choice for the Super Bowl? I don't remember this being the case when I was growing up. (Maybe we didn't have a Super Bowl when I was growing up.)Now when the Super Bowl rolls around, it seems that every chili recipe in the world comes out of hiding, and some of them are pretty awful. When I got a call for some chili recently (and, yes, it was for Super Bowl Sunday), I turned to my wife and asked what I thought was the only pertinent chili question: Do we do chunks, or ground? My wife was siding with chunks. I was leaning toward ground. As this began to take on the feel of a domestic dust-up, I dashed to our library to check what I figured must be the most authoritative voice on the subject, our Texas friend Melissa Guerra.
I first me Melissa Guerra after I'd sold a story about my molcajetes to the Dallas Morning News. The Texas paper wanted some local comment and steered me to Melissa, who sells Mexican cooking impliments and ingredients from her ranch near the Mexican border. We correspond periodically. One day I received a note from her asking if I would care for a copy of her new cookbook, Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert: Norteno Cooking of South Texas. Up to that point, I had no idea how deeply Guerra's roots are planted in that part of the country.
Guerra writes about the Texas she knows best, where her family has been living for eight generations. She describes a distinctly local cuisine, born of a Mexican heritage but adapted by German, Czech and Polish immigrants. It is a parched, sometimes lonely, but also soul-stirring contryside. I love the book because I am a sucker for good food prose. Spare me another book of recipes! I'd much rather read about you, where you come from, how food connects you with the planet. Guerra spins a fascinating story out of her local food culture , dishing up tons of useful information along the way. (Another great book with a Mexican flavor is Recipe of Memory: Five Generations of Mexican Cuisine, which is part family album, part memoir. A lovely book to read and own.)
As for chili, Guerra explains that this is a dish that evolved on the cattle trail. Ranchers and cowpokes carried dried meat around in their saddle bags and would hydrate it for meals, adding chiles to mask unpleasant flavors. Guerra believes there probably were no beans in the original chili. But she sometimes adds them anyway because "I adore the sweet flavor and thick, silky body that the starch from beans add to the chile con carne...."
Her recipe calls for ground beef and ground pork. So when I e-mailed her asking whether cubed beef would work, I received a long, detailed reply.
Guerra said she regretted not explaining in the book that what she meant by ground beef was a specific chili grind, which is made using a larger-than-usual die in the meat grinder. She suggested I ask my butcher to grind some beef in this manner. So I raced off to the meat counter at Whole Foods and had hardly gotten the first few syllables out of my mouth when the clerk interrupted me, saying, "You mean for chili?" And he pointed over to the refrigerator case and there, sure enough, were several packages of beef ground large for chili (it was a couple of days before Super Bowl Sunday.) Apparently, Whole Foods is hip to the chili-for-Super-Bowl thing.
After locating a butcher who will grind your meat large, the next step is to render some dried chiles. This is as simple as boiling the chiles in plenty of water, then removing the seeds and veins and running the chiles through a blender with a few canned tomatoes and some of the cooking liquid. Note: Melissa Guerra calls for a much greater quantity of chipotle chiles than I use in this recipe. The chipotles (a dried version of ripe jalepeno chiles) impart too much heat, in my view. Lucky me: the local Safeway carries dried ancho and chipotle chiles in bulk in the produce section. Just be sure to wear kitchen gloves when handling chiles.
Finally the meat is mixed with some sauteed onions and the chile sauce. It's a very simple preparation with just a few ingredients, but the end result will take you all the way back to the Horse Desert of South Texas. Thank you, Melissa.
P.S. You don't have to wait for Super Bowl to make this chili. It will warm your bones just about anytime you are looking for a hot, sturdy meal--especially with a big slice of iron skillet cornbread and perhaps a Caesar salad with garlicky croutons. This is the menu we are preparing for this weekend, when we travel to St. Mary's County Maryland for a traditional "matanza," or pig slaughter and sausage making marathon, with our farmer friend Brett Grohsgal. There will be a report with photos anon.
Makes 12 Servings:
Three or four dried chipotle chiles
Six ounces dried ancho chiles
1 15-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes
2 Tbs canola oil
1 pound ground pork
4 pounds ground beef
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large onion, cut into medium dice
Render the chiles by cooking in a large, heavy pot of water until the chiles are soft and have turned from a raisin color to a dark red. Remove from water. Reserve cooking water. Wearing kitchen gloves, carefully open the chiles with a knife and gently scrape away the stem and seeds (don't worry if you don't get all the seeds). Place chiles in blender or food processor with just enough cooking water to make a thick slurry that pours. Add tomatoes and blend till smooth. Press this through a fine-meshed strainer to remove any bits of skin or seeds from the chiles. The finished puree should be about the consistency of a thick spaghetti sauce. Set aside.
In a heavy pot or Dutch oven over moderately high heat, heat the oil till smoking, then brown all the meat in batches, seasoning with salt and pepper. If there is more than 2 or 3 tablespoons oil in the pot, drain some off. Then, over moderately high heat, cook onion till soft and lightly brown, about 8 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix meat and onions and pour in just enough of the chile/tomato puree to your taste. It should be just wet enough to slide around in a bowl, but not soupy. If you have puree leftover, freeze it for another time. Serve hot with the aforementioned corn bread and perhaps some grated cheddar cheese, sliced radishes and sour cream (or queso fresco).