Get the chill out of the air with a steaming bowl of chili.
It's called the official dish of Texas, but this subzero winter, we Heartlanders claim chili as our own. At Northern Clay Center's recent Annual Chili Tasting, variety and personality spiced each entry. All were worthy of the artisan chili bowls on display. There was chile con carne, three-bean chili, wild boar chili, turkey chili, tofu chili and chile verde.
Lore has it that this dish originated in Mexican cantinas where thrifty cooks tossed leftover meat with peppers and tomatoes into a pot. Called the "dish of forgiveness," it was served to customers who had their fill of beer before they went their own way. For me, it's a meal that, in this dark season, makes everything seem OK, especially when it's been lovingly simmered all day.
Take Birchwood Cafe's Chili, a richly spiced, thick, aromatic and nourishing stew. Just a small bowl is lush, fortifying and served with a pretty garnish.
It's a meal to savor, each spoonful a balance of warming flavors and textures.
Stephanie Carver, a chef at this Minneapolis cafe, spends hours building good chilis, soups and stews. She is careful to lay a firm foundation and then build flavors, textures and colors from there. It's easy to picture this former art student applying the same attention and love to each batch of chili as she would a canvas. She relies on the techniques described at right. Once the first steps are complete, she often improvises and adjusts the flavors.
"It's important to taste through the entire process," Carver said. She reminds us to season and salt incrementally as you go. Carver is passionate about using the best ingredients possible and fresh herbs, which she uses with abandon, especially in warm weather when they grow right outside Birchwood's door.
Here is a recipe re-created from notes of our recent conversation. This will satisfy a family of six, but feel free to expand as needed. (Note that if you don't have time to make your own chili, Birchwood Cafe offers takeout: 3311 E. 25th St., Mpls. 612-722-4474, www.birchwoodcafe.com).
1. Be sure to sauté and caramelize the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic until dark, golden brown.
2. Sauté in the tomato paste so that it begins to brown a little, which enriches the flavor.
3. Use fresh herbs as much as possible.
4. Vary the fresh chiles. Roast them first to help mellow the heat.
5. Let the chili rest a day or two so that the flavors mingle.
6. Be sure that the vegetables are cut small so you can fit all parts of the chili on the spoon.
7. No matter how corny it sounds, just make sure you put a little love into each pot.
8. Present the chili with some flair. For example, serve the Birchwood red chili (recipe at left) specked with nubs of golden corn, with a few blue-corn tortilla chips and a dollop of lime-seasoned sour cream and a few cilantro leaves.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis author and cooking instructor.