Chili Weather

This spicy, versatile dish is a delicious way to help relieve winter's cold.

January 29, 2003|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow Sunday, we likely will face weeks more of cold weather.

One cure for winter's chill is a steaming bowl of spicy chili. A pot simmering on the kitchen stove can bring almost instant relief from the seemingly unending cold and snow.

There are many variations on this dish that food writers Jane and Michael Stern called America's "one truly shared national food." To illustrate how versatile this dish is, the Sterns collected recipes from every state and put them in their book Chili Nation (Broadway Books, 1999, $12.95).

The recipes include the famous Texas Red, the Cincinnati Five Way served over spaghetti, and green chili from New Mexico. There's even a Chesapeake Bay Chili with shrimp and crab meat.

But what's the key to a really great bowl of chili?

There are nearly as many answers as there are chili experts, and considering there are thousands of people who participate in chili cook-offs around the country each year, that's a lot of opinions.

Alan Dean, executive director of the Chili Appreciation Society International, a nonprofit group that sanctions chili cook-offs throughout the country, approaches a bowl of chili the way an oenophile approaches a glass of wine.

Dean, who lives in Bel Air, says when he judges contests he looks for chili in which "The heat kind of blossoms in the back of your throat."

There are five criteria for chili in a cook-off - color, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste.

"Each of these is pretty much subjective," Dean says.

Most of the chili created by competitive cooks is the Texas Red, although in recent years green chili, made with green chile peppers and either pork or chicken, has been gaining popularity.

"It's better for all-around eating," says Kathy Stewart of Loma Linda, Calif., who won the top prize for her green chili in the International Chili Society's World Championship Cookoff in October.

But whether chili's green or red, most aficionados say a good bowl starts with quality meat. Forget ground beef and, for heaven's sake, the beans. Real chili - at least in competitions - never has beans.

The preferred cut of meat for red-chili lovers is chuck roast. Joel Gregory, editor of Chile Pepper magazine and a chili-contest judge, says it's important the meat be cut into 1/4 -inch cubes - any larger and the spices cannot permeate the meat, any smaller and the meat becomes grainy.

He also says the spices should be fresh, not more than 3 months old.

A bowl of competitive chili can have 14 kinds of chili powders, and competitors all seem to have their favorite brands and combinations. Nevertheless, most agree the flavor is not about how hot the chili is.

"It's a balancing of each of the spices so that nothing stands out," Dean says.

"You don't want something blazingly hot," adds Jim Parker, one of the founders of the Hard Times Cafe restaurant chain, which has chili parlors in Columbia and Laurel. "There has to be a little tang to it that makes it something different than spaghetti sauce."

And then there's the actual cooking. "It's about a three-hour, three-stage process," Gregory says.

In the first hour the meat is braised and cooked in chicken or beef stock. A few condiments are added, but usually not the chili powder, which tends to disintegrate if cooked too long. In the second stage, more spices and chile peppers are added. In the last half hour, the most delicate spices are put into the pot.

Al Nappo, corporate chef for the Austin Grill, says it's important not to rush the cooking time. "The trick is making sure you give it plenty of time to simmer." While competitive chili cooks in three hours, he suggests four hours on low heat.

The pot should be heavy to avoid scorching, advises Parker, who is a competitive chili cook. Most cook-off competitors choose Calphalon, he says.

And for a really great bowl of competition chili, you'll need to take into consideration elevation, temperature and how much beer the judges have been drinking, says Ron Burt of Lancaster, Calif., who won $25,000 in the International Chili Society's cook-off.

He considers the weather and adjusts his seasonings accordingly.

If by now you're inclined to forget the whole matter and open up a can of Hormel, don't despair.

The chili experts say competition chili is a science that has become far removed from home cooking. "It's more like a chemistry lab," Parker says.

Competitors are as much in it for the money and camaraderie as they are the chili.

Burt, for example, says he doesn't even like chili, and Dean says he almost never eats chili at home.

Parker says home cooks should keep in mind chili's essence - a simple, inexpensive dish. "To enjoy a bowl of chili shouldn't be intimidating," he says.

Although the origins of chili are debated - some saying it started on Texas cattle drives, and others attributing it to a group of women who sold chili in San Antonio's town market - chili seems to have been invented as a way to flavor meat of questionable quality.

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