When I was growing up, any dish that simmered on the stove for more than an hour signaled a special occasion. Dad's chili, a hearty, meat-and-bean fest loaded cayenne, was one of those dishes. We devoured big bowls of it, cooling off our mouths with sweet Jiffy corn muffins.
I watched my barrel-chested Dad, who cooked in Hanes cotton tank tops, brown the beef and then add layers of chili powder, chopped yellow onion, minced garlic, canned chopped tomatoes, and kidney beans. To finish, he tossed a spoonful of sugar into the giant, steaming pot, and let all the flavors meld together for another hour or two or until our bellies howled with hunger.
My job was easy: I shook the cornmeal mix from the Jiffy box into a ceramic bowl, cracked an egg, and poured in skim milk. It was fail-proof, even for a 12-year-old. The muffins always turned out golden and fluffy just like the sunshine yellow muffins on the box cover.
I've made chili a couple of times since childhood but my attempts fell flat. I was no longer cooking with Dad and I missed the simple sweetness and chew of those Jiffy muffins!
Discovering Daniel Boulud's chili in his book "Braise" awakened me to a different kind of chili, a no-bean chili with various dried peppers, roasted and then ground, adding layers of heat and flavor. It inspired this version, which relies on more widely available chiles, alters technique and timing, uses a mix of fresh and processed tomatoes, and, like Dad's, adds a touch of sweet at the end. I transformed the cornbread platform into a steaming pot of polenta with fresh, sweet corn kernels and diced queso fresco, a sweet-salty combo that cools off the mouth from the arbol-pepper burn and varies the texture. Thankfully, a delicious, soulful chili no longer lives in the past. The nostalgia is here and now.
Spicy, Three-Pepper Beef Chili and Fresh Corn and Queso Fresco Polenta
2-1/2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1-1/2 pounds ground beef
1/4 pound slab bacon
2 tablespoons canola oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, diced
2 limes (juice and zest)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano (use regular oregano if you don’t have Mexican)
1/4 cup homemade chili powder (see recipe, below)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 box (26.5 ounces) of Pomi chopped tomatoes
1 large, fresh garden tomato, chopped
2-1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
2-3 tablespoons honey to taste
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the chuck roast cubes on all sides in 3 - 4 batches (about 5 minutes per batch), then remove from the pan. Add the slab bacon and cook until the fat is rendered. Add the diced onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the reserved beef cubes and all remaining ingredients except the cilantro, and combine. Cover on low heat for two hours. Check periodically and adjust seasoning and add water if it's too dry. Top each bowl with cilantro leaves when serving.
Three-Pepper Chili Powder
(makes about ¼ cup, enough for one batch of chili)
4 ancho peppers
4 guajillo peppers
4 chilies de arbol
In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chili peppers on all sides for 5 to 7 minutes, ensuring they do not burn. Let them cool, then stem and seed them. Grind them in a spice grinder (I tasked an old coffee grinder with the job).
Fresh Corn and Queso Fresco Polenta
1 cup polenta
1/4 cup diced queso fresco
2 ears of corn, kernels cut from the husk and set aside
1 tablespoon of butter
Salt to taste
Heat the butter in a skillet. Add the corn kernels and the salt and sauté until soft. Cook the polenta with water as package indicates. When the polenta is three-quarters of the way finished cooking, add the queso fresco and the corn. Season with salt to taste.
Pour the chili over the polenta and top with fresh cilantro.