CHILI with PEPPERS Whether traditional or trendy, it'll likely bowl you right over

December 30, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

You read the forecast: "Areas of dense fog . . . otherwis cloudy with the chance of drizzle, highs near 50, cloudy tonight with a 50 percent chance of light rain, lows in the lower 40s. Mostly cloudy tomorrow, chance of rain 30 percent. . . . Then turning colder . . ."

You know what it means: wet, weary, dreary, bone-chilling weather for a few more days and maybe for another week.

And you know exactly what you need: a nice, big, steaming-hot bowl of chili.

Ah, chili. There's just nothing like this all-American favorite for driving the chilly blues away. The heartiness of the meat, the fiery warmth of the peppers, the savory onions and spices, the tangy tomato sauce; it's an unbeatable combination to warm soul and body.

"I've loved chili forever," says Fred Lahourcade, whose award-winning "Flameout Gonzales" chili is on the menu at his downtown cafe, Freddie's of Water Street. Mr. Lahourcade, who grew up in Texas, discovered his love of cooking when making dishes for friends in college, and chili was an early specialty. "My grandfather, who lived to be 100 years old, said that was what made him live so long: He ate a bowl of chili every day from the time he was 6."

"It's a real basic dish," says Bruce Pinnell, a Fallston resident who won top honors in the Texas State Men's Chili Championship in San Marcos last September -- the first non-Texan to win the contest. "I was pretty proud to bring that back to Maryland," Mr. Pinnell says.

He thinks that what makes chili so popular is that "everybody thinks theirs is the best -- it's a very personal thing." Besides, he points out, "it's a dish that originated in the United States. A lot of people think it's Mexican, but it's not."

Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach, cookbook authors and editors of the magazine Chili Pepper, note in the introduction to their latest book, "Just North of the Border," that chili's origin probably lies in "the heritage of Mexican food combined with the rigors of life on the Texas frontier. Most historians agree that the earliest written description of chili came from J. C. Clopper, who lived near Houston. He wrote of visiting San Antonio in 1828: 'When they [poor families of San Antonio] have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for the family; it is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat -- this is all stewed together.' "

These days chili is consumed in all regions of the country, a staple of mom-and-pop eateries and trendier restaurants as well.

"It has pretty much universal appeal," says restaurateur and Southwest food maven Mark Miller, whose new Red Sage restaurant in Washington, D.C., even has a designated Chili Bar. "It's a great winter dish. It's spicy, it's healthy -- it's got my favorite food in it, beans."

There is some dispute about whether chili should include beans.

"Beans are absolutely taboo" in the International Chili Society, a group that sponsors chili cook-off events around the country, Mr. Lahourcade says. "It's part of the rules and regulations of all the cook-offs. Beans are considered filler."

Mr. Miller dismisses such restrictions. "I think the beans make the dish. Otherwise, it's just beef stew."

Norma Kerr and W. Park Kerr, a mother-son team from Texas who run the El Paso Chili Co., note that "Them's fightin' words!" may have originated in a debate among Texas chili cooks over what constitutes real chili. "But as west Texans," they write, "we take it all with a grain of garlic salt. Around these parts the influences of Old Mexico, New Mexico and the Pueblo Indians are as strongly felt as anything coming our way from Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, or Houston, and chili has come to mean a number of different, delicious, spicy dishes that a central Texan would probably disdain, leaving, we note with considerable pleasure, all that much more of the fiery stuff for us to enjoy."

And them's eatin' words, especially at this time of year.

*

There may be as many chili recipes as there are chili cooks, but here are a few variations to put a little warmth in your winter meals.

This first recipe is a variation of the "Flaming Gonzales" chili served at Freddie's. Fred Lahourcade has been competing in chili cook-offs since 1985, when he and a friend, Tom Allen, won the Chesapeake Regional cook-off in Baltimore.

When Mr. Lahourcade opened Freddie's earlier this year, he decided to make chili a signature dish.

Fred Lahourcade's chili

Serves 10-12

3 pounds ground chuck (coarse chili grind)

1 pound ground pork (coarse chili grind)

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cloves minced garlic

1 green bell pepper, finely chopped

1 28-ounce can tomato sauce

2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes

1 can beef bouillon

1 12-ounce can beer

6 tablespoons chili powder

1 small bottle Kitchen Bouquet

1 tablespoon oregano

dash of cayenne pepper (or to taste, for spiciness)

salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons masa (corn) flour

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