Hot Chili For Chilly Days

In the realm of home cooking, chili is a very hot item. The state that is most associated with chili is our big next-door neighbor, where Texans disagree over what goes into an authentic chili as fiercely as we debate the composition of a proper gumbo. One might reasonably think that north Louisiana, which, both culturally and geographically, is closer to Texas than to New Orleans, would be the epicenter of chili in Louisiana, but I haven’t found that to be the case. Even among those who have never been north of I-10 or west of the Sabine River, chili is a favorite food.

Chili evokes images of cowboys, trail drives and chuck wagons, which, in the popular mind, are far removed from the bayous of Louisiana. In fact, the cowboy tradition has a history in Louisiana that very likely predates that of Texas. As early as the late 1700s, Acadian cowboys were driving longhorn cattle from the lush prairies of the Opelousas and Attakapas districts in southwest Louisiana to market in New Orleans.

Which is not to say that they were eating chili along the way, but our ranching traditions go way back and continue to this day, even in the marshes of Vermilion Parish, where the Louisiana Cattle Festival is celebrated every October. Cattle rustling is also still with us, as evidenced by the September arrest of a 16-year-old who was charged with stealing 24 cows, valued at $26,400, from a Vermilion Parish cattleman. Authorities released him on $2,500 bail, something that wouldn’t have happened in frontier days, though apparently cattle rustling carries a maximum penalty of 10 years at hard labor. That might be about the same amount of prison time some chili fanatics would recommend for a cook who didn’t prepare a “bowl of red” according to their dictates. “Bowl of red” is something of a misnomer, considering that chili is often more brown than red.

 Disagreements begin with the meat. Beef is the most common, but venison is highly esteemed and often mixed with ground pork. The consistency of the meat, which ranges from regular ground meat to coarse ground (called chili grind) to chopped meat to cubed meat, is another matter of contention.

Then there’s the question of onions, which usually go into chili, but some purists disavow them. The same goes for tomatoes. There’s also a choice of using either chili powder or a variety of individual spices and fresh hot peppers. Any of those ingredients can provoke an argument among chili heads in Louisiana or further west, but no issue is as incendiary as the question of whether chili should include beans. Although beans have their advocates, it’s safe to say that the preponderance of opinion goes against the inclusion of beans. However, even some who rail against the addition of beans to chili like a bowl of frijoles on the side. Drilling down even further, there are arguments over whether the beans should be pinto, red or kidney.

And those disagreements don’t even take into account local styles of chili, most of which don’t travel very well. One of them is Cincinnati chili, which is flavored with cinnamon. A Texan who had no idea such a thing existed told me about a cook who had served cinnamon chili. Cooking such an abomination was bad enough, he said, but to add insult to injury, “The guy even pretended it was a real recipe!”


Turkey Chili

This chili is truly a “bowl of red,” colored and flavored by smoked paprika and flecked with bits of hot green peppers. If you don’t tell your family and friends that this is made with turkey, they may never suspect.

• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 2 medium onions, chopped
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 pounds ground turkey
• 2 24.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
• 3 cups chicken broth
• 6 tablespoons smoked paprika
• 2 teaspoons ground cumin
• 2 teaspoons oregano leaves
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper coarse salt to taste
• Serrano or jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced, to taste
• 2 tablespoons cornmeal

In a heavy, covered casserole over low heat, simmer onions and garlic in oil, stirring occasionally, until softened.
Add turkey and cook, stirring, until turkey loses its pink color.
Puree tomatoes and their juice in blender and add to pot, along with chicken broth.
Add smoked paprika, cumin, oregano and black pepper.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, for 30-40 minutes.
Season to taste with salt.
Add diced hot peppers a little at a time until chili is as hot as you want it. 
Stir in cornmeal to thicken chili. Adjust seasonings to taste.
Makes 4-6 servings.

Sirloin Chili

I’m sure it’s possible to come up with a special combination of various cuts of beef that would produce a superior chili (as some chefs and restaurants do these days when developing the ground meat blend used in their burgers). In the interest of simplicity, I use ground sirloin that has excellent flavor and a fat content of 10 percent or less.

Regular ground beef often contains at least 20 percent fat, which means you’re going to skim off a lot of rendered fat or you’ll have some very greasy chili. Each time you skim the fat, you’re losing flavor from the seasonings you’ve added. When you use sirloin, no skimming is required.

Cracker meal is difficult, if not impossible, to find on the retail level these days, but it’s simple to make your own. Put a few saltine crackers in a plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin. Tip: use crackers with unsalted tops or your chili will be too salty.

• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 2 medium onions, chopped
• 2 pounds ground sirloin
• 2 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
• 3 cups water
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile pepper
• 4 teaspoons smoked paprika
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon oregano leaves
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• coarse salt to taste
• 2 tablespoons cracker meal

In a heavy casserole, cook onions in oil, stirring, until browned.
Add ground sirloin and cook, stirring frequently, until browned.
Puree tomatoes and their juice in blender; add to pot, along with water, garlic, chipotle chile pepper, smoked paprika, cumin, oregano and black pepper.
Season to taste with salt.
Simmer on low heat for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add cracker meal and stir in thoroughly to thicken chili.
Adjust seasonings to taste.
Makes 4-6 servings.

Chili is one of those compliant dishes that can be made in quantity, frozen in smaller portions and reheated for a quick meal on a cold day. Either storage containers or freezer bags work well, and the chili can be defrosted and heated in a microwave or, with the addition of a little water, on the stovetop.


Pinto Beans

Make a pot of beans to accompany your chili. That way, those who like chili with beans can add them and others can have a bowl of beans on the side. My preference is for pinto beans, cooked plain, to provide a counterpoint to the spicy chili.

• 1 pound pinto beans
• 8 cups water
• Coarse salt to taste

Sort and rinse beans.
Add beans and water to a heavy casserole with a tight-fitting lid.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 90 minutes.
Season to taste with salt.
Makes 6-8 servings


Cornbread is the ideal accompaniment to both chili and beans.

• 1 ½ cups stone-ground white cornmeal
• ½ cup all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 2 large eggs
• 1 ½ cups buttermilk
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Grease a 9-inch square cake pan.
Combine dry ingredients in bowl and whisk to combine.
In another bowl, beat eggs, add buttermilk and oil, and mix.
Stir egg and milk mixture into dry ingredients until just combined.
Pour into prepared pan and bake in preheated oven until lightly brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
Makes about 9 servings.

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