Sunday, March 06, 2005

On Chili

Would you believe me if I told you that the Bible mentions chili?

Have a look at this passage, II Kings 4: 38-41:

When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, "Put on the large pot and boil stew for the sons of the prophets."

Then one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and sliced them into the pot of stew, for they did not know what they were.

So they poured ikt out for the men to eat. And it came about as they were eating of the stew, that they cried out and said, "O man of God, there is death in the pot." And they were unable to eat.

But he said, "Now bring meal." And he threw it into the pot, and he said, "Pour it out for the people that they may eat." Then there was no harm in the pot.

"Death in the pot." Now that's about as good a description of "he-man" chili as I've ever seen.

Chili is nothing but a stew: meat and spices. Like curry and hot-and-sour soup, it's a dish that's also a test of manhood: Real Men use so much hot spices that if you can eat it, if there isn't hair on your chest there should be. (Unless of course you're a female.)

There are thousands of chili recipes out there. I've got at least half-a-dozen at home that I've tried. Some I like, some not so much. There are, of course, a few things I've noticed when making chili:

1. Chili needs cumin. Cumin (either in seed form or ground) adds a backbone to chili, gives it the sensation of solidity that the heat can be anchored from. Most canned chilis (and a lot of fast food versions) use cumin a lot.

2. Chili needs chili powder. You can make chili without resorting to the fresh hot peppers such as jalapenos or Scotch bonnets, as long as you have a good chili powder to use. (Powder, not sauce; commercial chili sauces tend to be weak.) Different powders have varying degrees of heat.

3. You don't need beef. If you're using ground meat, ground chicken, turkey or pork will work just as well as ground beef.

4. Chili is better with beans. Those of you from Texas, put away your nooses, tar and feathers; it is not a blasphemy to mix in beans with chili. You need a different texture to contrast with the meat in any case, and red kidney or romano beans work remarkably well.

5. You can cool down a "too hot" chili. It's not too hard, really. Remember what Elisha did? Certain starches will absorb some of the acidity that contributes to the hotness of chili. Beans for example, but also corn kernels.

You can also tone down the heat by using something sweet (or something associated with sweetness). Honey or molasses work well enough. So do mint leaves, or unsweetened cocoa powder. Altoids, on the other hand, aren't a good idea.

And remember: milk cools taste buds better than water for washing down a bowl of red.


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