Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beef & red bean chili

[there is no such thing as a photogenic chili, so we'll say that I'm in love with its personality]

My love for chili seems to go against my very nature.  You see, my brain is hard-wired for science, math, things of an exact nature, which is probably why I've always preferred (read: been better at) baking to cooking.  Baking is to science as cooking is to art, and I am in no way artistic.  Baking requires exact proportions of leavening to flour to fat, etc etc.  Cooking once scared me because phrases like "eyeball it" and "a dash of this" and the ever-popular "season to taste" are everywhere, seemingly reminding me that I have no actual culinary training and if I'm making said recipe for the first time, how should I know what it's supposed to taste like?  Huh, Mr. Snooty Chef, huh?

Well, chili is probably one of the most flexible recipes out there, so I've learned that my phobia was very unwarranted at best and basically downright unreasonable.  I'd put it right up there in difficulty with quiche, and we all know that my love for this easy crusty eggy make-it-your-own dish knows no bounds.  I've read that you really can't mess up chili -- and I'm here to say that statement is true!  (Note: I mean, don't expect any sympathy from me if you play devil's advocate and make this with ridiculous ingredients like Swedish fish and Cherry 7-Up.  Wow, I like that those are the first two random foods that come to mind.)  If it's too dry, add more liquid.  If it's too bland, add more seasoning.  And since it's all a stove-top process and everything is already cooked and merely warming and melding, adjustments seemed easy.  After all, there are a few staples of standard chili: ground meat (even that can be omitted for vegetarians), beans, liquid of some sort, vegetables, and seasonings.  In fact, I swear that until this go-round, I'd never even used a recipe nor measured ingredients [gasp], thus making each batch of chili I've made different from its predecessor.

I have previously favored ground turkey in my chili, but a wise man in my life alerted me to my recent beef cravings and suggested I go along with it. (Good call, wise man.)  I like my chili on the sweet side, but feel free to cut back on the amount of brown sugar or add hot sauce if you like it with a spicy kick.  As for the liquid, I had tomato juice on hand and I like the flavor, but I've seen beef broth, a can of beer, or even water used as the liquid in chili.  For the beans and veggies, substitute your favorite bean for one or both cans of kidney beans if you're in a daring mood.  In a previous batch, I added a cup of sweet corn off the cob and it was delightful.  Experiment!  And when it comes to seasonings, I promise I tried to be good for your sake and measure everything out, but let me tell you a little secret -- it doesn't matter!  When you get to the end, let a little spoonful of the chili cool slightly and test it.  Add more of whatever you want to reach desired taste.  That's very anti-recipe of me, but hey, it's YOUR chili!  Make sure you like it!

Oh and finally, one little secret yet oddball ingredient whose presence may have raised an eyebrow or ten -- unsweetened cocoa powder.  I've seen it in a few recipes over the years and thought I'd give it a whirl.  You will not taste chocolate in your chili, unless you dump a cup of it in the pot.  But it gives another level of flavor to the chili and holy cow [no pun intended, but well-played, Katy], you'll never make chili without it again.

Beef Red Bean Chili
-makes 9 cups

2 pounds ground beef (I used 95% lean, but use whatever you like)
1 cup diced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup tomato juice or beef broth... or beer... or water
1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon chili powder
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 15-ounce cans of light red kidney beans, drained
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add meat and cook until evenly browned, about 5 minutes.  Add onion and cook until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes.  Add garlic and cook an additional minute, stirring occasionally.  Add tomato juice, cocoa powder, chili powder, reduce heat to medium and cover for 10 minutes.  Add the beans, brown sugar, salt, and pepper, stirring until well distributed.  Taste and season until you're happy!

Serve hot and garnish with sour cream, some grated cheddar cheese, or even minced jalapeno... you know, if you're of the crazy persuasion. Enjoy with fresh corn bread.  (And yes, that's a mix but it's the easiest/quickest muffin ever and after "slaving" over a hot stove, why not use a shortcut or two so you can enjoy your hard work sooner?)

Store in sealed container in refrigerator for up to a week or freeze in 1 cup portions in Ziploc bags; thaw in refrigerator for a day and reheat.

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