My family wasn’t big on vacations – no annual trip to Cape Cod for a week or Disney World vacations that went on three years too many. Ever couple of years, we'd visit a family friend's house in Biddeford, Maine. I've been there only once or twice since I was a kid, but even just looking at the picture up there, thinking about climbing out on the rocks, the smell of the ocean filling me, and I'm calm.
We did take one epic family vacation, though. Hijinks did ensue, but there was very little drama. We flew to England and drove to Scotland for my Great Aunt Jane’s 80th birthday. We landed at Heathrow in August of 1990 dressed for your average English weather, but we were met with a heat wave. We were in jeans and long sleeves and sweaters and we climbed into a rental car the size of a bathtub with 22 days worth of luggage for four and drove through a couple hundred miles of countryside, smelling almost as charming as the sheep out the window.
There were only a few radio channels with only a few songs and a couple of radio shows, which we started listening to after the weirdness of listening to Johnny Gill sing “I Wanna Rub You the Right Way” with our parents became too much. To this day, my family can recall the full and extended – and invented – lyrics to Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner at the mention of a cow or sheep. We’ve been known to burst into song – just try us.
My sister wasn’t much of an eater then. She was your classic picky ten-year-old – ten times cuter than she was accommodating at mealtime. The one food she was willing to order and continued to eat nearly daily was chili. The first time she ordered it we were completely perplexed – those crazy Brits! We’d never seen chili served over rice before.
Now I recognize the genius of it. First, it helps stretch a pot of chili for a crowd. Second, a bowl of chili is essentially a giant bowl of meat, which is really more meat than a person needs to eat in a sitting, zombies excepted. At our house, chili is always served over rice and our California living-inspired additions are Greek yogurt, local pepper jack cheese and fresh cilantro leaves and chunks of avocado.
It’s taken a few goes, but I can say for certain this is now our official house chili.
Wicked Delicious Spicy Chili
2 pieces speck, bacon, or prosciutto
3 lbs ground beef
½ tsp coarse kosher salt
¼ tsp cracked black pepper
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbs Ancho chili powder
3 Tbs medium-hot chili Powder (see note below)
2 Tbs hot chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 Tbs plus 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes, preferably fire roasted
1 cup (8 oz.) low salt beef broth
2 14 oz cans of beans, drained (kidney, pinto, or one of each)
1 Tbs plus 1tsp cider vinegar
1 Tbs coarnmeal
2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
A dust – barely a smidgen of allspice
Add speck or other pork choice to a cold large, heavy bottomed pot. I most often use my Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4-Quart Round French Oven, Flame. When the speck has surrendered it’s fat and your pan is glossy, add the beef, salt and pepper and brown thoroughly. Take your time – this builds flavor. When it’s satisfactorily browned (this could be 10 – 15 minutes, easily), add the chopped onion and garlic and simmer, turning regularly, until the onion is translucent.
At this point, if you’ve used fattier beef and your beef is wet with drippings, ladle off most of the fat. Add all of your chili powders, cumin, tomatoes with juices, beef broth, and cocoa powder. Simmer on low heat for at least an hour with a tight-fitting lid on; alternately, cook on low in slow cooker or in the oven at 300 for 90 minutes.
Now test for salt – you may have lost some in the ladling of fat. Add beans, vinegar, cornmeal, and Worcestershire sauce. Stick your finger in some Allspice and the rub your fingers over the pot – I’m telling you, going too far here could be disastrous. But getting it right – it adds that certain je ne sais quoi….
At this point, test for heat – if you need more kick, add cayenne to taste. Most people will find this just right as is, and many people will find it too hot as is. Know your dinner guests, but don’t be afraid to take a risk – the rice, cheese, yogurt or sour cream, cilantro and avocado will all balance the heat. And you can always put some sliced jalapenos on the table, too.
For spices, I’ve grown attached to Penzey’s. You can get big pouches of the chili powders more cost effectively than at the grocery store. If you’re in SoCal, I’d also try your neighborhood market, if it stocks lots of Mexican foods.
The deal with the speck is this: we’re eating less meat on a daily basis, but being able to add a small hint of smokey, meaty flavor to beans or greens makes such a huge difference to the final dish. We can get some local speck and prosciutto made in Iowa that’s great – I keep a pack in the fridge and use a single slice or two as I need it.
I buy really good quality grass-fed ground beef, but I buy the higher fat stuff then just assume I’ll have to drain off fat after I’ve browned it.
Finally, one of the things I love about chili is how well it freezes. I put a few cups of chili in a small freezer bag and let it freeze flat, for easy defrosting. This recipe should make three quart-sized freezer bags of chili, plus a bit. Each bag will serve four, or three bountifully, if you serve it over rice.