So let’s get this out of the way, right here, right now. This is a post about chili. But not the old-school kind of chili. Not the kind of chili you put on a chili dog. Not the kind of chili that, when I was in college, I used to slop over fries and drench with nacho sauce and call it dinner. (I am shamed.) Oh, no, this is not your generic tomato-red, capsaicin-swimming, orange-grease-slicked Amurrican chili. If I ever enter this chili in a cookoff, they’ll almost certainly ride me out of town on a rail.
There are about a million and one traditional chili recipes out there in the ether, all more or less the same. What I’m after is none of them. I want chili that demands nothing but a bowl and a spoon and a sprinkle of cheese, that fills to the ribs without coalescing into a belly-brick. I want incongruous meats and funky textures, toothsome chunks of vegetation, beans of all different sizes. And I want something so far beyond the pale that it hardly qualifies as chili at all. My signature chili is absolutely killer, but it’s also miles away from tradition. It’s almost–dare I say it–un-American.
So here’s the proof. I’m done. Haul me away and lock me up. I surrender.
Okay, so this isn’t actually un-American at all. It just owes a debt to an entirely different American tradition: gumbo. Leave it to this California born-and-bred to hit on what might happen if Texas and New Orleans had a baby. A thick, brown, lumpy baby. (Mmmm.) This is a recipe born almost entirely of feverish invention. And, as with so many things I cook, there is a Saga involved.
About a year ago, my friend Mel tipped me off to Economy Bites, her friends’ internet cooking show. Of course, I got hooked; cooking shows are my
crack Charlie Sheen. And here’s what always happens. I see a meal idea that piques my interest and tuck it away in my head–in this case, meatloaf with ground chicken and chorizo. Then things begin to percolate and mutate somewhere in the dusty recesses–I bet chicken and chorizo would be good in chili!–and, suddenly, the burning curiosity ignites. I HAVE to try this. Then, from there, it’s only a short while till I’m scouring the supermarket aisles, buying way more ingredients than I need, and roping in my friends to serve as guinea pigs…again.
But this time, things hit a snag at the store. Try as I might, I could find neither ground chicken nor chorizo. I may have kicked my feet and whined like a very small child; I admit nothing. But then there was ground turkey to sub for the chicken, and andouille sausage in place of chorizo, and suddenly the wheels were turning again. After all, andouille sausage is an anchor ingredient in gumbo, and gumbo and chili are both stews, and oh, I’ve just spotted some gorgeous poblano peppers in the produce section, and there are all sorts of spices in the cabinets at home to try, and do you see how these things begin to snowball?
Now, I’m not too big on secret ingredients; if I hit on some fantastic flavor combination, I’m going to shout it from the rooftops the first chance I get. That being said, there is actually one tricksy little flavoring agent in this chili: a shake of ground cinnamon. I can’t explain why I added it, why I felt the sudden yet irresistible urge to grab the bottle as I was rifling through the spice cupboard, but I did, and it’s delicious, and I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that no one will be able to place it.
Best part? Once the chili is simmering, you can just walk away for an hour and a half, maybe longer. For a cook like me, who needs to keep tabs on everything all the time what is this doing why isn’t this boiling oh god the garlic’s burning help me help me, this is almost like therapy. Let the chili simmer, and just walk away. Watch a movie. Knit a scarf. Write a song. Take a nap (but make sure the smoke detector’s on). Then, when the chili is as thick and brown and lumpy as you think is fitting, ladle it into a bowl and plunk some grated cheese on top.
I mean, look at that. Who needs chili cheese fries, anyway?
Turkey Andouille Chili (serves 8-10)
1 pound ground turkey (or chicken, or pork, or whatever the hell ground meat strikes your fancy)
4 andouille sausages, chopped
1 onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, diced
1-2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1 poblano (pasilla) pepper, seeded and diced
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp paprika, smoked if you can get it
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 14-oz. cans low-sodium diced tomatoes
2 14-oz. cans low-sodium black beans
1 14-oz. can low-sodium pinto beans
1 14-oz. can low-sodium kidney beans
Salt to taste
Shredded cheddar or pepper jack cheese, for serving
Heat 1 tbsp oil in a stock pot or other large pot. Add sausage and lightly brown, about 5 minutes. Add onion and carrot, stirring until just beginning to soften, then add garlic, jalapeño and poblano peppers, and spices. Stir until the vegetables are soft and the spices are fragrant. Add remaining 1 tbsp oil and turkey, gently breaking it up with your spoon or spatula, and stir until meat is browned. Stir in tomatoes, beans, and bean liquid. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 1½ hours, or until chili has reduced and thickened to your liking. Taste and season with salt, if needed. Serve with a sprinkle of shredded cheese…or maybe a handful.