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Amy Thielen
Amy Thielen

Withhold 'contemplation' as an ingredient to chili

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entertainment Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

In preparation for this week's chili challenge I've been throwing recipes and styles around in my head and have come to the conclusion that the best chili is personal.

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This is a dish that non-cooks can learn to make well and great cooks can easily botch - less a recipe than a blueprint, or just a pastime. In my experience, the best ones are thrown together, either quickly or leisurely, without too much contemplation, like lasagna for a crowd. This is not to say that making a good one is easy. (It is not.)

Great chili can be made with ground beef or venison, bison or even chicken or turkey; it's not the protein that separates the good from the bad, it's the level of caring, attentive stirring and tasting. In general, if by the time it's done you're so full from the tasting that you can only sit down to a teacup, it will probably be a good one.

There's a lot of speculation about where the real authentic chili comes from, but with the sum of us Americans - such a motley crew - how can you track down the origins of anything?

For the story alone, I prefer to believe it came from the cowboys. Around the same era the best ones were probably coming out of the kitchens of Mexican grandmothers, but I prefer the Hollywood cowboy pot-o-beans fable. Anyway, whether Mexican or tex-mex, I believe that a good chili should have real chiles at its backbone - powdered, dried or canned.

I like to use Guajillos, a smoky medium-hot Mexican chile. And to further the cowboy mythology, I usually try to make mine with hand-cut chunks of beef chuck roast, although coarsely ground beef tastes just as good and venison comes in a close second.

My best version of the dish surfaced during a time when I was obsessed with a couple of Mexican cookbooks: Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, and My Mexico, by Diana Kennedy. Both of these cookbooks are titans of the genre and I highly recommend them if you like to make Mexican food.

From both of these I learned two authentically Mexican things that improved my chili: one, the toasting and soaking of dried chiles; and two, the use of whole sweet spices.

Chili powder is not made from cumin alone. It comes from traditional Mexican spicing and includes allspice and clove, sweet spices that add an interesting dimension to a pot of beans. I usually throw in half a cinnamon stick, too, especially if I'm using venison. It counters the juniper-woodsiness of our local stuff.

Lastly, it's got to be hot. None of this namby-pamby stuff. Conveniently, I've found that people tend to suspend their personal spice-threshholds, preferring their chili hotter than they can usually stand anything else. After all, relief stands in a huge dollop of sour cream.

Here is my personal blueprint, which I've adorned with substitutions, because like I said, I think the best chili is freestyle and rife with understudies. I stick to fantasy constraints: the chuckwagon cook couldn't just go to town because he ran out of onions, and so neither can I.

My chili

Feeds 10 to 12

Note: You can find the dried chilies in specialty stores or large grocery stores. Locally, you can find the anchos but maybe not the guajillos. In that case, use all anchos, and you might want to add a spoonful of canned chipotles in adobo to the blender mixture to add flavor - but watch out, the stuff is spicy.

5 pounds boneless chuck roast (or cubed venison shank or shoulder, or ground beef or bison)

8 cloves garlic, unpeeled + 2 more, peeled

1 tablespoon cumin seed

10 allspice berries

4 whole cloves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

6 guajillo chilies (can substitute pasillas or 3 more dried anchos, if desired)

2 small very hot dried chilies

2 dried ancho chilies

2 teaspoons dried marjoram or thyme

4 bay leaves

4 sweet onions, cut into medium dice

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 28-ounce can whole roma tomatoes

2 small cans pink beans, drained (more if you like them)

large spoonful of mole (about 2 tablespoons)

4 cups beef broth (chicken broth is okay)

1 bottle Guinness beer (or another dark beer, such as porter or stout)

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 ½ tablespoons masa harina (or fine cornmeal)

Tweaking the seasoning:

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or to taste

1 tablespoon brown sugar

salt and black pepper to taste

Cut the beef into ½ inch by ½ inch cubes, and trim any obvious fat.

Separate the whole cloves of garlic, leaving skins on. Heat a small sauté pan over medium-low heat and add the garlic. Toast them, turning once or twice, until the skins are blackened in spots and the garlic feels soft inside. Remove peels.

Brush out the skillet and toast the cumin, cloves, allspice and black peppercorns until fragrant; reserve and brush out skillet again.

Remove stems and excess seeds from dried chilies and add to the skillet. Toast in the dry pan on both sides until a wisp of smoke rises. Transfer chiles to a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let steep for at least 15 minutes.

Pour the whole tomatoes into a large bowl and crush with your hands until coarsely mashed.

In a dry blender, blend spice mixture until fine. Add soaked chilies, ½ can tomatoes, 2 fresh (uncooked) garlic cloves, the spoonful of mole, and enough of the chili soaking liquid to make a thin puree (about half). Blend a long time, until very smooth. Season to taste with salt. Strain.

Heat the oil and butter in your largest, widest pot and add the onions. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat until soft and browning on the edges about 20 minutes. Add the masa harina and cook briefly to combine. Crush the remaining tomatoes until fine. Add the beef, tomatoes and remaining juice, the blender chili sauce, bay leaf, dried herbs, the beer and enough beef broth to just cover the meat. Bring to a simmer. Add more stock as needed.

Cook 2 hours at a very low simmer.

When meat is nearly tender, add the beans. Tweak seasoning with sugar, vinegar and salt. Cook another hour, until meat is tender and beans have absorbed some flavor.

This is best made the day before.

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