Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tex-Mex style chili

Every December, San Diego has it's "Parade of Lights". Boat owners get into the holiday spirit by stringing lights all over their boats and parading through San Diego harbor. Usually there's a theme, and this year's had to do with pirates, though I couldn't tell you the exact name. I have a friend with a sailboat, and we usually gather on her boat, motor out into the bay and watch the parade from a genuinely front row seat. This year, however, the engine on her boat wasn't working very well, so a group of us decided to have a pot luck on a grassy area by the bay instead.

I heard about the mulled wine and the hot spiced apple cider that was coming, as well as a hot bean dip and some spanikopita. Well, those all sounded perfectly wonderful, but there was no main dish. Now, I'm not averse to eating hors d'oevres for dinner. Not at all. In fact, I do it often. But somehow, being outside on a cool evening - well, cool by San Diego standards anyway! - I just needed something a little more substantial. We had all decided that the majority of the food should be hot, as the evening promised to be cool. I wasn't into cooking anything fancy, as I've been busy getting ready for my upcoming trip to New Mexico this Thursday.

And suddenly it dawned on me. I own a crock pot! Haven't used it in years, but I still own one! It's almost a Donna Reed kind of thing, even though I'm not sure if crock pots were invented in her day. But it kinda made me want to put on an apron, curl my hair and put Ponds Cold Cream all over my face. A crock pot - that wonderful invention that turns anything and everything into stew or soup. The kind of thing that's made for pot lucks. The kind of thing that actually manages to keep food pretty warm even when it's not plugged in. All I needed was a car with fins, and I'd have the whole thing down. But alas, my car lacks those spectacular additions that make no sense other than to say "Whoooopppeee! Look at me!" So I tooled off to my pot luck dinner with my Tex-Mex style chili in a decidedly 2002 style car. Ah well....No one's perfect!

Anyway, I decided that this was going to be a down and dirty, non-gourmet kind of thing. And since no one out here knows the difference between New Mexican style chili and Tex-Mex chili, I decided I'd give them what they all think of as chili. That is to say, I'd give them something that contained meat and beans and tomatoes. No self respecting New Mexican would even think of adding tomatoes to chili!!! Or beans, for that matter! In New Mexico, beans are served on their own. Separately from chili. You can put chili on top of beans if you like, but you never mix the two and call it chili. And tomatoes? Those belong in salads. Maybe a few sprinkled on top of your rolled enchilada for color, but that's much more of a Taco Bell kind of thing. If you find it in someone's home, it's because they've adopted it from another culture.

So what is New Mexican chili? If it's green, it's basically onions, garlic, chilis, oregano and cumin cooked in oil with maybe some corn starch and water or chicken stock as a thickener. That's it. If it's red, then a paste is made from pureeing the red chilis after they've had their seeds removed, and then soaked in water to soften. Many people will add garlic to red chili as well as green. So when you go to a restaurant in New Mexico, they will ask you "red or green?" That's the only question. Whatever color you choose, they will add that kind of chili to your dish. If one of you wants red and the other wants green, they simply add the appropriate color chili to the meat or beans you've ordered. It's easy because the meat and the beans have been cooked separately, without the chili.

The Tex-Mex style incorporates beans and meat in with the chili. There's usually tomatoes in there, too. Many recipes will tell you to use chili powder - the kind you buy in a supermarket. I think the last time I looked at one of those tins, it contained mostly oregano and possibly other herbs and very little chili. I used a red chili powder for my chili, but it was nothing more than dried and ground up red chilis from Hatch, New Mexico. Since I was feeding people who have various tolerances for spicy, I kept mine on the very mild side. People loved it! It was the first dish to disappear. I'm happy about that, but I'll be happier when I'm eating what I consider to be the "real thing." A little smoke coming out of my ears, tears running down my cheeks and the requisite sopapilla with honey as the antidote sounds just about perfect to me.

Meanwhile, here's the
down and dirty, Donna Reed, crock pot version of Tex-Mex chili. Just don't tell your friends where you got it - OK? But do tell me what your favorite dish to bring to a pot luck is! I need ideas!
Chop an onion and sautee it in some canola oil with some chopped garlic. I used 3 cloves. Add ground meat. I used ground turkey, (This IS California, after all!), but you can mix and match whatever kind of meat you like. Add a dash of oregano, salt, pepper and some kind of hot chili powder. If you can't get ground red chilis, you can use cans of green chili. Those are usually pretty mild. If you want more heat, use some Hungarian paprika. (When you mix red and green chili it's called Chili Colorado.) Or if you're like me and like it hot, you can dice up some jalapenos and add them. Just remember to remove the seeds first, and then don't, under any circumstances, touch your face or your eyes! When the meat is browned, add a can of beans. I used pintos, but kidney beans work too. Then add a can of chopped tomatoes. Stir, simmer, taste and correct seasonings. One thing I like to add when using tomatoes is fennel seeds. There's something about the combination of fennel and tomato that I like. I'll use it in everything from marinara sauce to moussaka. It may not be the usual addition to chili, but once you open the doors to tinkering, what's to stop a little fennel seed from blowing in?

I'll be in New Mexico from Thursday, the 20th, through the first of January. I'm not sure if I'll post any recipes during that time, but I will have my camera with me. I want to wish all of you the absolute best holiday season ever! I can't believe I started this blog in January of this year. It's been almost a year now, and I have "met" some of the nicest people on the planet through this little blog. So thanks to all of you who have read my posts, made comments and encouraged me this past year. I can't tell you how many times you've brought a smile to my face! And it's been my privilege to read your wonderful posts. There are some amazingly talented people out there in foodblogville. Some of the best writers and photographers I've seen in a long time - not to mention some phenomenal recipes! So thank you, thank you, and thank you again for being part of my life for this past year!


Cynthia said...

This has been such an education, thank you. I generally would take a pot of cook-up rice: rice cooked with coconut milk, peas and various meats such as chicken, beef or pork. Or you can make it veggie.

I can send you a recipe if you like.

Toni said...

Cynthia - I love it!! I love the name - cook-up rice. And then the ingredients - Oh Yes! Please do send me a recipe. I'm sure I could make something up with those ingredients, but I'm definitely curious to know what herbs and spices you would add.

Thistlemoon said...

This sounds so lvely and hearty! Yum! By the way I just love mulled wine.

And St. Augustine, FL where we just moved also has this boat holiday light thing and we missed it!!! Someone told us it was at 7 and it was really at 6! WAHHHHHH!

Nora B. said...

Merry Christmas, Toni. I hope that you and your family will have a wonderful day and also best wishes for 2008.

x Nora

p/s: i enjoyed reading this post and also the bread one before it.

Toni said...

Jenn - Oh well.....they'll do the boat thing again next year, I'm sure! Meanwhile, here in New Mexico, they light luminarias, which are brown paper bags with a shovel of sand at the bottom and a candle lit in them. They are beautiful! If I can get to a wireless cafe with my computer, I'll upload a photo or 2.

Nora - Thanks! I hope that you and Q. have a great holiday, too! And here's to a peaceful and abundant 2008 for all of us!

Susan said...

Call me Donna, too. I have two crock pots that I never, ever use. I made a few bum recipes early on when I purchased them, then pushed them on a back shelf. Chili sounds like the only way to go. Great idea!

How lovely to go sailing at Christmas. Hope you had a wonderful December, Toni. Happy New Year!