Wednesday, February 14, 2007

In Praise of Chilis


It's February and it's raining. If I were back in New Mexico, it would be snowing. Now this may sound crazy coming from someone in southern California, but I'd prefer the snow. Somehow, when those thick flakes come down and the world gets blanketed in quiet, you just know it's time to throw another log on the fire, put on some music, and head for the kitchen to make some chili.

We need to stop here, because I must tell you what I mean when I say "chili". People always ask me if I put beans in my chili. Or what kind of meat I use. But you see, to a New Mexican, chili isn't about beans. Or meat. It's about chili. And onions, of course. And some herbs and spices. But chili is something you add to meat. Or beans. It's a food in and of itself. So the only question, really, is "red or green?" That's what you'll be asked if you go to a restaurant in New Mexico.

People often ask me which one is hotter? The fact is, either one can set your hair on fire, or be as mild as a green pepper. Chilis come in all degrees of heat, in all colors, and with some subtle (and not so subtle) differences in flavors.








The beauty of this approach to making chili, is that when you've made a big pot of it, you can then add it to whatever you wish. If you have leftover chicken, you can make a chicken and chili stew. If you've got some ground beef or a steak you don't mind cutting into cubes, then you can make some chili with beef. You can ladel it over rice or beans, or wrap it in a thick tortilla. It's delicious. It warms you from the inside. And it's high in vitamin C, so it's excellent for fighting off those winter colds and flu.
So when you're done eating all those Valentines chocolates, when the flowers have become droopy, and the weather continues in relentless winter dreariness, consider the warmth and comfort of some chili.

I made green chili today. Red chili takes more work, and I had other things on my mind. When I lived in New Mexico, we used to wait for the trucks to come up from the town of Hatch - known for it's superior chili. Semi trucks would pull into the parking lots of various supermarkets, set up a large wire mesh, cylindrical drum over a gas burner and wait. In no time, there would be a line of people, buying green chilis by the bushel. They would empty the big burlap bag into the wire drum, fire up the burner and crank the large handle attached to the drum, rotating it. The chilis would tumble around inside this wire drum and get roasted. When the skins were black and crispy but the flesh still moist, the man would toss them into a giant black plastic garbage bag and tie it closed. You'd place the heavy bag on the floor of your car and drive home with the smell of warm chilis filling the air. When you opened the bag, the steam that had been trapped in the bag had caused the skins to pop off, making it easier to remove them. My husband and I would pour ourselves a glass of wine and spend the next few hours skinning chilis. After a couple of hours of this, we'd give up, and divide what was left into quart sized baggies and put them in the freezer with the skins on. When it came time to use them, we'd run them under hot water and the skins would pop off easily.

2 TBS oil
1 onion, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced.
1 TBS cumin (or more, to taste)
Several good shakes of dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste. (Yes, you may use black pepper in this dish!)
1 1/2 TBS butter (or substitute)
2 TBS flour
water
Chilis - roasted, skinned an chopped, seeds removed. Mostly.


What kind of chilis? How many? Well, for my chili tonight I used 2 anaheims (no heat at all - just flavor), 3 poblanos, and 2 yellow jalapenos. I roasted all of them on my gas grill (it only sprinkled a little), threw a plastic bag over them and brought them inside. By the time I got done chopping the onions, I was ready to peel the peppers.

In a heavy pan, heat the oil. Add the onions and garlic and cook till the onions are translucent. Add chili and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Remove from pan. Make a "white sauce" by melting the butter into the pan, adding the flour, mixing well and adding water until it's the right consistency. Add the chili mixture to the sauce, reduce heat, cover pan and simmer for about 20-30 minutes. Check the liquid level while it's cooking - you don't want it to dry out. Check and correct seasonings.

This evening, I happened to have a little bit of ground beef. I don't often eat beef, but about a half a pound of it made a fine amount to create an enchilada with the chili. I mixed the beef with onion, salt, pepper, and garlic and sauteed it in a pan. When it was done, I got out a flour tortilla and heated it directly on my gas stove, turning it often to make sure it didn't burn. I spread the beef, then the chili, then grated the little bit of cheddar cheese I had left over, rolled the tortilla up and turned it over, seam side down. I spooned some of the chili over the top, added some chopped lettuce and tomato, and dinner was served. Muy delicioso!
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10 comments:

Lydia said...

I've often thought I could move to New Mexico, just for the chili. I love the image of waiting on line to get your Hatch chilies fresh roasted.

Patricia Scarpin said...

Chili is so interesting, Toni!

My husband didn't like chili before, but lately he's been asking me to use it when I cook - go figure! :)

May I ask you what's wrong with black pepper?

Tks, dear!

Toni said...

Lydia - There are so many reasons to live in New Mexico. Chili is a good one, but the physical beauty of the place makes people forget what they thought they'd be doing when they got there. They don't call it "The Land of Enchantment" for nothing!

Patricia - I used to have a pretty neutral (or sometimes negative) attitude towards chili. Then my husband stopped putting in our food when I complained "Can't we have ANYTHING without chili?". It didn't take more than 2 weeks before I began begging for it!

Toni said...

Lydia - There are so many reasons to live in New Mexico. Chili is a good one, but the physical beauty of the place makes people forget what they thought they'd be doing when they got there. They don't call it "The Land of Enchantment" for nothing!

Patricia - I used to have a pretty neutral (or sometimes negative) attitude towards chili. Then my husband stopped putting in our food when I complained "Can't we have ANYTHING without chili?". It didn't take more than 2 weeks before I began begging for it!

Susan said...

I have visited New Mexico once (which I adored), but now wish I had seen some roasting chilies. The hotter the better! I enjoyed this story.

Chris said...

I love chili! So, as you said - you chili - me strawberries - together - yummy meal. I am all about it...:)

Freya said...

I love Green Chilli! Yours photographs are beautiful as well!

E said...

Your chili looks awesome! I wish my grill wasn't covered in snow :(

Toni said...

Chris - it's a deal!

Freya - Thanks! I feel I need to improve my photo skills much more. Haven't done food photography before - just people. It's been a challenge.

e - New Mexico winters are so much different from those in the east. We used to be able to fire up the grill any time of year. Cold? Yes. But sparkling sun and turquoise sky.

Jann said...

I have a very close friend who lives in New Mexico, Albuquerque-she adores her chili peppers as much as you! She does not like to cook much, but enjoys the flavors of all the peppers. I will be sending her your blog site.Cheers!