As I type this, the winds are screeching around my house like a kindergarten class on a sugar high running from a swarm of bees. (Take a moment to soak in that imagery — I swear, that’s what it sounds like, but I don’t want to look out the window, in case sugared-up children are actually being chased by scary clowns, and, knowing thusly, I would be expected to rescue said children. But in the case of scary clowns, it’s every woman for herself, man. Zombies, I’ll grab up all-y’alls’ kiddies and stab the undead in the forehead with my Shun chef’s knife, but clowns, they’re on their own.)
Every once in a while, the lights flicker, but hold (thankfully … thinking about my freezer full of summer preserves). Hard, crunchy leaves from the nearby mighty oak tree hit the west-facing windows with loud !PINGs! as they’re ripped from their branches and hurled outward. Far and away, Superstorm Sandy is showing New Jersey and New York what hurricane hospitality is all about, and the wind storm here that is torturing the nerve endings of everyone in the household is rushing eastward to hook up with her, promising snow on Tuesday. It’s a crazy night in the eastern half of the country.
And so, October makes a dramatic exit. And comfort food hits the menu, big time.
A cold, breezy Saturday called out for something stewy and spicy, like chili. Coincidentally, with the farmers’ markets prepping to close down for the season here, it’s time to stock up on both winter storage vegetables and local, grass-fed beef, pork, and poultry.
Now, I follow a mostly vegetarian diet — the only meat I ever crave is in the form of a really good smoked turkey sandwich (especially when smeared with Boursin and topped with a tangy cranberry sauce — hello, Thanksgiving leftovers!), but I do purchase meat and feel tons better about it when I know the animals were well-cared for, roamed grassy fields, and fed a proper animal diet. (Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield — no, thank you — they and their Big Ag ilk are why I went vegetarian to begin with).
I like all kinds of chili, truth be told — with beans, without beans, with tomatoes, without tomatoes, with or without chocolate and cinnamon, with beef, pork, turkey and/or chicken, and, of course, no meat at all. What I really wanted on Saturday was a great big mish-mash of flavors — a nice cut of fresh chuck, smoked bacon (both local), simmered with juicy cremini and porcini mushrooms.
Aaanddd … the spices. “Chili” is not chili without spices. That’s what “chili” means, dontcha know: chili, as in, chili pepper. No chili of mine leaves its pot without a big blop of homemade chili paste and frequent doses of ground spices. Chili paste is super easy: rehydrate a handful of your favorite dried chilies — I prefer smoky chilis, like guajillos and anchos and New Mexicos, over hot chilis — and blend ‘em up in the blender with a bit of the chili water or tomato juice.
In the photo above, left, the chilis I used are (clockwise) guajillos (2), chipotles (2) and one big ancho. In the photo above, right, I mixed up a batch of sweet paprika, smoked paprika, cumin, and salt, and seasoned the chili throughout its two hour cooking time.
Between the chilis, the spices, the hint of bacon, and the super-savory-beefy mushrooms (which replaced 1/4th of the meat normally called for), this chili really hit the spot — flavorful and perfectly seasoned.
Chili with bacon + mushrooms
When you look at the list of steps, don’t panic. Many of them are very quick, and you’ll be able to move from one to the next with ease. Really great chili takes a bit of prep – it’ll be worth it in the end. If you’re just not up to dealing with the chili paste, use your favorite chili powder, or – better – stir together your own blend with ancho chili powder, chipotle chili powder, and ground cumin (in addition to the paprika blend).
Also note here that I never use ground beef for chili – I always, always by full cuts and slice into 1/4″ cubes (kitchen shears make quick work of it). The next time you have a few extra minutes to prep the meat yourself, you should try it – the difference is amazing.
4 – 6 dried chili peppers (I used 2 guajillo, 1 ancho, 2 chipotle)
1 dried bay leaf
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1/2 cup hot water
1 beef boullon cube or 1 teaspoon Better than Bouillon paste
1/2 cup boiling water
2 teaspoons olive oil
5 slices uncooked, thick-cut smoked bacon, chopped into 1/4” pieces
1 medium onion, diced
1 small red bell pepper or poblano pepper, diced
8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms, chopped
2 teaspoon peanut oil
1 1/2 pounds chuck roast, trimmed, and sliced in 1/4″ pieces (buy extra to account for the removal of fat and connective tissue, about 2 lbs)
8 – 12 ounces lager beer (can or bottle)
1 1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cumin
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (15 ounce) can diced tomatoes (I use petite cut – you can also use crushed)
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Prepare the dried chili peppers: slice off the stem ends and shake out the seeds (cut open the peppers with scissors for easier access to the seeds). Break or cut them into 2” pieces and place them into a bowl of hot water, along with the bay leaf. Set aside to soak for at least 20 minutes.
3. Prepare the dried porcinis: break the mushrooms into 1” pieces and add to 1/2 cup of water hot water. Set aside to soak.
4. Prepare the beef stock: In a small bowl, dissolve the beef cubes or paste in a 1/2 cup boiling water and stir. Set aside.
5. Prepare the spice mix: Mix the paprikas, cumin, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
6. Cook the bacon, vegetables, and mushrooms: Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a 4-5 quart dutch oven over medium until shimmering. Add the bacon pieces and cook until the fat begins to render and the meat edges tinge with gold. Stir in the onions and cook until nice and soft, about 8 minutes. Add the diced peppers and cremini mushrooms and stir to mix everything well. Cover with a lid. Cook until the mushrooms have given off their liquids and are brown and soft. Remove the lid and add the rehydrated porcini mushroom pieces to the pot, reserving the liquid.
7. Strain the reserved porcini liquid into the beef bouillon – you should have about a cup of very flavorful broth.
8. Brown the chuck: Season the chuck generously with about a tablespoon of the spice mix, reserving the rest for later. Heat 1 teaspoon of peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high until shimmering (this will happen quickly, so be ready). You’ll need to work in batches. Add meat to the skillet in a single, loose layer. Don’t crowd the pieces, or they’re more like to boil and steam than develop that nice flavor-boosting crust. If the meat gives off a lot of fat as it cooks, carefully drain it to keep the pan fairly dry.
9. When the first batch is browned, add it to the bacon-mushroom mix. If there are browned bits stuck to the browning pan, pour in a bit of the beer to deglaze the pan, scraping up all the bits and juices. Add to the bacon-mushroom mix. Repeat with the remaining batches of meat. Add the cup of beef/mushroom bouillon to the chili pot and stir to mix everything well.
10. Make the spice paste: transfer the now-rehydrated peppers and bay leaf to the jar of a blender. Top with a bit of the chili pepper soaking liquid and tomato juice from the can of diced tomatoes. Blend well. Scrape the paste into the chili pot. Use a bit more of the tomato juice to help rinse any stubborn bits of paste in blender jar. Add the tomatoes.
11. Give everything one last good stir, cover with an oven proof lid (or wrap tightly with foil) and place in the oven. Allow to cook for a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours (longer won’t hurt). About one hour in, stir in the remaining spice mix, plus the apple cider vinegar (replace the cover).
12. Before serving, remove from the oven, uncover, and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Ladle out individual servings and top with your favorite garnishes: sour cream, cheddar cheese (I used an aged gouda), cilantro, green onions.