First off, I am neither a photographer nor a food stylist. So just get over that. What I am is a person who, like many, is passionate about cooking and eating food. I rarely use or write recipes or make anything exactly the same way twice. Cooking is an exploration for me. Same as I would never sit down to paint the same painting that I did a few months ago, only on rare occasions do I set out to re-create a dish exactly as I had made it before, though I will sometimes set out to re-create a dish that I remember from some past experiences in other times and places.
If you’ve grown up in the USA you probably grew up eating something called “chili,” but unless you grew up in the Southwestern USA, this so-called “chili” consisted of ground beef, tomato products like tomato sauce or diced tomatoes, “chili powder” which is mostly paprika, and a can of kidney beans. Of course, some sauteed onions, green bell pepper, salt, and pepper. Occasionally people get fancy and add a few dashes of hot sauce or what have you.
Once a long time ago I worked for one day in the kitchen at the famous McGlinchey’s Bar in Center City Philadelphia. I learned the secret to their chili was a splash of vinegar. I don’t recall what type but since then I’ve generally added a splash of white, red or apple cider vinegar to my chili.
In the early 1990s (my “hop on a Greyhound with a backpack and go see” days of youth) when I was living briefly in New Mexico, I ate the real deal (at least in the American Southwest), which is basically pork and either red or green hot peppers and some other ingredients (no beans), slow cooked until everything is falling apart. I was pretty much broke at the time and spend about $3 on a tub of chile verde. It was so spicy it brought tears to my eyes and pain to my empty stomach. I was really low on cash, so I made myself eat it instead of wasting money by throwing it away.
I’m not much of a praying type, but the next day as I sat on the commode, my face and cheeks were covered with the ass-felt tears and snot of anguished pleas to any god that would listen. Boy, I though it was spicy while I was eating it, but I had no clue. I really thought I was going to die in this very inelegant way.
OK. Breathe. Painful remembrances aside, I’ve made what I call a milder “Generic Northern” chili for decades, always intentionally trying different ingredients, or simply trying to use up whatever is in the refrigerator and pantry while accommodating whatever taste combinations are pinging in my brain at the time.
Today, I set out to make a vegan chili, and brighten it up a bit by adding a few more vegetables than usual. I knew I wanted bright but also smokey flavors. I have rarely used a recipe because I can’t slow myself down long enough to read one let alone keep referring to it. I simply look at recipes as lists of ingredients so my mind can envision flavor, color, scent, and texture combinations. So, what I am presenting today is not a recipe, but a list of everything that went into my chili today and a mention of a few things that did not. I present this not as a guide to the ultimate chili, but as an incomplete list of things one might consider when seeking to up their chili game. For your consideration:
Fresh minced garlic
I’m not a big fan of hot peppers. I prefer to add heat with dried and ground peppers of various types. It’s just me. I live in a part of the country where “exotic” food ingredients aren’t available and I refuse to pay online prices for things I used to be able to buy for cheap when I lived in more civilized locales. I usually don’t put celery in chili but am trying to eat less meat and add more vegetables to my diet. Some people simply chop vegetables and throw them into the pot, but I think sautéing them until they become a little caramelized first is preferable.
Canned diced tomatoes
A lot. Some people use other tomato products. I use what I have on hand. I prefer petite diced tomatoes but the regular diced tomatoes were older and in the name of First-In-First-Out, I used the regular diced. Tomato paste adds a lot of umami flavor and also helps thicken the chili a bit.
Canned pinto beans
Leftover prefab refried black beans
Soy-based ground meatless product
Smashed corn tortilla chips
There is no scent more heavenly to me than dried beans simmering in water, but today I just felt like opening a can of beans. I usually use two different types of beans to make things more fun, but today I had these refried black beans which were left-over from yesterday’s breakfast. They also helped thicken the chili. I still eat meat on occasion, but the soy-based substitute was surprisingly satisfying. The first time I ever encountered a Mexican restaurant was in Indiana, PA where I went to college many decades ago. It was probably the first time I ever ate a tortilla chip that wasn’t a Dorito. I loved scooping up the chili with the tortilla chips. It created a memorable flavor and unique homey scent. A few decades later I discovered, probably by dumping the crumbs from the bottom of a spent bag of tortilla chips, that adding crushed tortilla chips not only adds a unique warm scent of home cooking and flavor that is hard to describe to the chili, but it also helps thicken it as well. Did I mention yet that I love my soups, chilis and stews to be thick and not watery?
Generic chili powder
Ground black pepper
Chopped dried “Facing Heaven” pepper from Sichuan
Fresh chopped cilantro
Pinch of brown sugar
Seasonings. This is always when the real fun begins. Some of the spices such as cumin and peppers are good to add to the oil before sautéing the vegetables in order to toast them and release more flavor. Others I add mid-way through. Others I add at the end by way of adjusting previous judgements and decisions. My goal when I cook something like this is to create a near-psychedelic experience, ramping-up the range of flavors to a wild peak that is still delicately balanced. Sometimes a pinch of sugar causes everything to coalesce into heavenly perfection. Doubling up on ingredients is another hint I learned a long time ago. For instance, if you have sauteed onion in your dish, double it up later with some onion powder. Another hint, I think I got it from the Frugal Gourmet is to never add water to a dish if one can instead add a liquid that has flavor instead i.e., wine, stock, etc.,
Finally, some things I considered adding, but felt there was enough going on already: fresh squeezed lime, vinegar, garlic powder, alder-smoked salt, beef bouillon, ancho peppers, Liquid Smoke, kidney beans, a blob of sour cream on top, sweet corn, chopped dried mushrooms, LSD (just kidding!), a barely detectable pinch of cinnamon, whole toasted cumin seeds…
Anyway, I wish you were here to enjoy this pot of chili with me. Halfway through my first bowl, I decided it did need a splash of vinegar and a little more heat which I will attend to later. It sure has been fun and now my wine glass needs refilling. Adios and Bon Appetite!