Me and my prize: a first edition of For Whom The Bell Tolls. Pretty sweet to cook for poets and writers.
Last Thursday was the first of what will hopefully be many Writer's Workshop-centric food nights, this one a chili cook-off. Out of six entrants (and someone who brought spaghetti and meatballs) I somehow, miraculously, managed to be judged Best of Show, just like a Scottish terrier or Pekingese.
I really, genuinely, thought each persons chili had its merits and I would have hated to be in the position to judge. Beans or no beans? Tomato? Accompaniments? So many equally delicious possibilities. My own mother makes a mean turkey chili with brown sugar added (and not much more than a hint of heat) that I think the world of, but I was positive it would not win over the palates of the assembled crowd. I had to do a little research first, to decide where to start. I had to figure out how to seduce their tongues but also give them a good roughing-up.
8 ancho chiles
8 pasilla chiles
8 guajillo chiles
6 chiles de arbol
2 cups chicken stock
6 pieces of thickcut bacon, cut into 1/4 wide lardons
7 lbs of beef chuck roast, cut into 3/4 inch chunks (leave the fat alone!)
2 large white onions, chopped
10 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 cup of strong brewed coffee
1 can/bottle of your favorite beer
1 tablet of mexican hot chocolate mix (the brand at my store was Abuelitas)
2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
4 tbsp ground cumin
First, make the chili paste: Toast the dried chiles in a hot oven (400 degrees) just until they are fairly fragrant, not burnt! Probably 3-4 minutes. Put them in a mixing bowl and cover with hot water for an hour. Drain the water, tear the stems off, empty out the seeds and remaining water from the chilis, and put in a blender with the chicken stock. You might need to do it in two batches depending on how powerful your blender is. Blend until it's a nice smooth paste. If you are bothered by skin and seed chunks, you can always push it through a wire mesh strainer...but don't be a baby! This is chili! It's not pretty to look at or easy on your digestive system. Set this aside.
Next, cook the bacon, beef, and onions and garlic: In a large, heavy pan (cast iron is the bomb!) cook the bacon over low-ish heat until all the fat is fully rendered and the bacon is nice and crispy. Don't dump the bacon fat! Turn the heat up to medium-high, wait until it starts smoking, and working in batches brown the beef chunks. It took me four batches in my 12-inch pan. Don't crowd the meat or it will steam and release liquid, a process that is the antithesis of browning. Once you are done, turn the heat down and add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and translucent.
Assemble the rest of the chili!: Add the chili paste, meat, onion mixture, and all of the other ingredients to a large stock pot or dutch oven. Between the coffee and the beer there should be enough liquid to cover the meat by 1/4 inch. If not, add a little bit of chicken stock until it is all covered. Heat high until it just starts to boil, then turn to low and cook for 5 hours uncovered, stirring every once in a while, and tasting for seasoning. Add salt in 1 tsp increments after an hour of cooking, to suit your taste. And skim the funky foam and some of the grease floating at the top. The liquid should reduce during cooking, leaving you with a nice, thick, savory chili.