Monday, February 2, 2009

Joe Gracey’s Texas Chili (non) Carne

If you were a Native Texan 400 years ago and you had a mess of peppers and onions and beans and garlic and squashes and corn and handful of herbs like oregano and comino (cumin, not to be confused with what the Europeans call “cumin” which is something else), well, your first idea would be to throw them all in a pot and stew them together. All of these things grow wild in Texas and Mexico so the cooks of the bunch developed this soup/stew and when there was any meat to be had, fresh or dried, it was of course added.

Later when the Cattle Culture became paramount in Texas and Northern Mexico, this stew came to be called “chili con carne” since beef was easier to come by, but in fact it could be made with pork or lamb or jackalope or whatever carne you had at hand. It was still a stew of meat and peppers and herbs.

With the modern-day interest in non-carnivorous eating, I figure it is but a short step back to the original intent of this dish and so I present my version to you here.

The only bean that has the correct flavor for this stew is the Texas Pinto Bean. It absolutely cannot be a white bean, or a kidney bean, or a black bean. Please. They all have their place in the pantheon of bean dishes, but only the Pinto (or better still, the Anasazi) will do. Nothing else has the earthy but light assertiveness required. In a pinch, try what we Americans call “red” beans, or the Italian “borlotti” bean.

Again, I am sorry to insist on ingredients which may be esoteric or are hard to locate, but the flavor of the dish depends on the presence of the dried “poblano” pepper, which is called the “ancho” chili in its dried state, or the dried powder of this pepper which makes up most of the “chili powder” sold by commercial suppliers in Texas. Pepper lovers know that each variety has its own unique flavor, and substitutions are usually unsuccessful. If this pepper is impossible to locate, use sweet paprika and cayenne powders to taste.

Please notice that there are no tomatoes of any kind in this dish. The characteristic color and flavor of chili does not rest in any way upon tomatoes, contrary to popular belief.

And so, with those caveats, I give you this dish:

1 pound Pinto Beans, soaked overnight, water discarded
2 yellow onions, chopped and browned in oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
6 ancho chilis (de-seeded, simmered and blendered or chopped, or 6 tablespoons of Texas chili powder)
kernels from 3 ears of corn
1 tablespoon of cumin powder (or until it tastes good and strong)
salt and pepper
vegetable stock to cover
fine cornmeal
1 teaspoon of strong Mexican Oregano leaves, dried

Drain the beans. Cover with stock, add the vegetables (except the corn) and the cumin and the salt and pepper. Use the chili pepper simmering water as part of the stock. Simmer until the beans are done. Add the oregano and corn and simmer for another half hour or so. Add cornmeal as needed to thicken.

Adjust salt and pepper, and serve it forth!