18 October 2011

togetherness; or how the hearth, proverbial or in a bowl of chili, brings comfort

there's a lot of soup-eating at my house. No matter if I want to feed just myself, a horde of party-goers, or just a couple friends, putting some sort of soup on the stove is always magical. In no other cooking does the confluence of ingredients seem to happen with so little help. Though the thermometer suggests that outside it is a balmy autumnal day, the wind whipping through the tree limbs strongly informs anyone outside otherwise.

Its howls and shrieks also inform anyone near a window that, despite the sunshine and clear blue sky, it is rather cold in the elements. This is the point where autumn's clean air and whirling leaves turn cold and damp, that show the eerie fragility of the seasons. Winter is coming, and soon. It all makes me think of cozy sweaters, and cozier, hearty dinners with friends. I just want to tuck everyone close to me closer and feed them.

I really think a fireplace is one of the best inventions for encouraging togetherness and warmth. Even when you're alone, or just snuggled up with a pet companion, a fire or even just a hearth tends to call to mind peace and community. Perhaps it is simply the early homo sapiens in us, but open fire brings out our inner, non-smartphone obsessed selves. Somehow, I always think that people left their selves alone to tend to each other more when it was still a priority for people who gathered together to ensure that they never left at least one fire in the community go out. That sort of togetherness sometimes returns when we gather around a fire now.

Of course, my tiny house does not either need nor have the space for a fireplace. Sometimes gathering around a fire is more of the proverbial hearth and not the literal one. A stove often works just as well in our updated society. What works even better though, is a stove with something spicy bubbling away upon it. I often turn to chili for a simple lunch or supper, especially now when late peppers are still in season and slightly overripe tomatoes are just begging to be used.

I don't know of anyone who doesn't like chili, the Tex-Mex version of a simmering, spicy beef stew. Ground beef and sausage replace cubed; peppers and tomatoes replace carrots and corn; onions never go out of style, while beans and lentils soak up flavorful juice just like potatoes. I love the smokey flavor of cumin, and the sweetness of cornbread on the side balances a palate of salty spiciness. If you put a salad on the side and make tortilla chips and guacamole, there are enough vegetables to keep the health-conscious happy while enough meat to satisfy everyone else. Plus, once you get everything in the pot, it's just a waiting game.

Chili (usually the portions fill whatever cooking pot you use; feel free to freeze the leftovers for lunches or quick suppers)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped1 large Bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
cracked black pepper
3 teaspoons chili powder (makes a mildly spicy chili. More can be used to taste later in cooking, though an addition of a favorite taco sauce to make up the difference is often tastier)
1/3 pound ground beef
1/3 pound ground sausage (spicy or breakfast)
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup beef broth
5 medium tomatoes, chopped into eighths (or two cans, including juice, stewed tomatoes)
1 cup black beans, soaked and cooked (or one can, drained)
1 cup pinto beans, soaked and cooked (or one can, drained)
enough water to cover the ingredients

heat the oil in a very large cast iron roasting pan or stewpot, adding the onions when hot. Allow to soften for a few minutes, then add the pepper and garlic, salt, pepper, and spices. Cook until onions begin to brown, then add the beef and sausage. Brown the meat with the veg and spices, breaking it into chunks, until it is nearly cooked. Next, add the wine and broth to deglaze the pan. Stir everything until it comes to a gentle boil, then add the tomatoes and beans. Finally, add enough water to cover everything (you might also use a beer and water, though that is not necessary). Allow everything to come back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover.
Allow the chili to cook for at least twenty minutes before tasting. At this point, you might need more water, more chili powder, that extra hot sauce, more salt, more pepper, or to leave the lid off a bit and allow the chili to reduce and concentrate in flavor. Cooking is rather subjective.
At this point, the chili is ready to eat, though it will benefit from another 20 minutes to an hour's worth of cooking. You might put this into a crock pot at the earlier point of turning it down to a simmer if you don't plan on staying near the kitchen. It will take longer there, but should still be tasty. Continue to taste test the chili until ready to serve, adding water or spices as necessary.
Take note: mildly spicy chili at the first testing will be spicy chili after another hour of cooking. It's always easier and better to place hot sauce and chili powder on the table for your guests than expect them to eat food hotter than their palate.
I like to put a dollop of sour cream or a generous serving of cheddar cheese on mine, but preferences vary.

 "Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

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