A culinary revelation in the desert

It just don't get much better than this.

Commercially prepared chili fixings are loaded with salt, spices/herbs and (often) other additives and preservatives. Salt desiccates everything and transparent packaging allows the spice mix to oxidize, delivering a product that is less than optimal in flavor profile.

This I learned from Jane Butel, renowned cookbook author and expert on all things Tex-Mex and New Mex (www.janebutelcooking.com), while attending a private cooking class in New Mexico. In fact, Bon Appetit magazine credits hers as the best vacation cooking school in the nation.

I was there to learn about chiles and wine and was amazed at how well they work together.

A dish with a high salt content (courtesy of most commercial Tex-Mex seasonings)  in combination with a beverage with high alcohol content will turn everything bitter.

True top-quality chile powder (sans additives) has flavor. And a nervy wine or a fresh-squeezed margarita with vibrant acidity will bring out that flavor while imparting no bitterness.

So here is a clear-cut example of how food-and-wine-pairing rules don't apply in the broadest sense. Things do change en situ.

I'll never buy commercial Tex-Mex spice blends again.

New Mexicans have the science of food and wine pairing down to an art, and the art is on the plate and in the glass. In that regard, Jane Butel is a maestro. 

According to her, there are only 10 ingredients in traditional New Mexican cuisine, so everything relies on a purity of flavor that is sacrosanct, including blue corn, which is sacred to each of the 19 Pueblo Indian tribes. Each has its own variety of blue corn and does not plant it on a commercial scale so as to avoid cross-pollination between the corn fields of adjacent tribes.

Chardonnay (and chardonnay-based sparkling wine) is fabulous with corn. And, just for the record, it is considered very, very bad form in New Mexico to leave a corn kernel on your plate. It is a holy thing.

I've tried several recipes from Jane's cookbooks since my return to Maryland, and each and every one has been a winner. But I've also stacked the deck. I purchased boxes of chile powders, Mexican oregano and other ingredients while in New Mexico, so my ingredients are pure.

In lieu of that rich and fabulous New Mexican Ponderoso Tre Rosso 2005 Jane poured during our day in the kitchen, I substituted Drouhin Beaujolais-Villages 2009 and served it up with Jane's signature bowl of red chili. And it was a phenomenal meld. The wine held its own and sang its own song.

The Drouhin Beaujolais-Villages 2009 ($12) is one of the best Beaujolais I've tasted in several years. It is all mellow and rich and mouth-filling with bright cranberry-pomegranate fruit. It has the power to stand up to spice without being kow-towed. To be honest, it gave me a whole new perspective on Beaujolais with food.

I've always gone red zinfandel with spice. Not anymore. I've ordered a case of the Drouhin. You should too. Get a "Chili Madness" cookbook also. The combination will change your life.

Pecos River Bowl of Red

(as printed in "Chili Madness" and re-printed with permission from Jane Butel)

2 tablespoons lard, butter or bacon drippings

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

3 medium-sized cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1/4 cup pure ground hot red chile

1/4 cup pure  ground mild red chile

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

Melt lard, butter or bacon drippings and sauté onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

In large bowl, mix the meat with the garlic, ground chiles, about half the cumin and the salt. Transfer the meat to the pot and add 3 cups of water. Stir to combine.

Return the pot to the stove, place it over high heat and bring the meat mixture to a boil. Then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally until the meat is very tender and the flavors are well blended, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

Taste the chili and determine the need for more chile(s), hot or mild, and/or more salt. Stir in the remaining cumin and serve with finely chopped onion, sliced pickled jalapeno, coarsely grated cheddar and/or Monterey Jack cheese, lime wedges dusted with pure ground hot or mild chile powder and pequin quebrado.

Serve with Ponderoso Tre Rosso 2005 or Drouhin Beaujolais-Villages 2009.

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