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With chili, almost anything goes; Flexibility: For those who want to go beyond the classic version, the possibilities are endless.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Chili is evocative food. The scent of a simmering batch transports me back to my youth in southern Ontario, when thermoses of my mother's steaming-hot stew came along on family ski trips to protect us against the Canadian cold.

It wasn't until much later that I realized chili could be as flexible as it is fortifying. While the dish is always anchored by red chili, beyond that almost anything goes.

Mom's chili, for example, was delicious but limited: ground beef, kidney beans, tomatoes and chili powder. My chilies, while hardly complex, are more fanciful. I'll whip up a classic meaty but low-fat version by stretching beef with beans and adding beer for extra flavor. Or, I'll team chicken and hominy, or drop meat altogether in favor of chewy, satisfying barley. The possibilities are endless, and my thermos is always full.

Offer garnishes such as reduced-fat sour cream and grated Cheddar cheese (about 1 tablespoon each per person), chopped scallions and chopped fresh tomatoes.

A California zinfandel will balance the spicy smokiness of the chilies, as will amber Mexican beers.

The earthy richness of dried New Mexico chilies gives chili powder its distinctive flavor. Most commercial powders, though, also contain garlic, oregano, cumin and cloves. This combination works fine, but traditionalists insist on the cleaner flavor of pure chili powder. If you can't find it, make your own: Stem a dried New Mexico chili, shake out the seeds, break it into pieces, then grind it into a fine powder using a spice grinder. One medium-sized chili yields about 1 tablespoon of chili powder.

Bean and Barley Chili

Makes about 9 cups, for 8 servings

2 cups dried pinto beans

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 large onions, finely chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

2 stalks celery, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

6 cups water

1 bay leaf

4 dried mild New Mexico chilies, stemmed and seeded

1 cup vegetable broth or reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

1/2 cup pearl barley

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sugar

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Avocado Salsa (recipe follows), optional

In a large pot, soak beans in cold water for at least 8 hours or overnight. (Alternatively, cook beans in boiling water for 2 minutes. Cover and set aside for 1 hour.) Drain and rinse beans.

In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and celery; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, cumin and oregano; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add water, bay leaf and beans; bring to a simmer. Skim foam from surface. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 1/4 hours.

Meanwhile, in a heavy, dry skillet over medium-low heat, lightly toast chilies. Transfer to a plate and let cool; tear into several pieces.

In a small saucepan, bring broth to a simmer. Remove from heat and add chilies; cover and let soften, turning several times, for 30 minutes. Transfer chilies and broth to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.

When the beans have simmered for 1 1/4 hours, add chili puree, tomatoes, barley and salt. Simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until beans and barley are tender and chili has thickened, about 45 minutes more.

Remove bay leaf. Season chili with vinegar, sugar and pepper. (The chili will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.) Serve with Avocado Salsa, if desired.

Serving suggestion: Serve with nonfat plain yogurt and baked corn chips.

Per serving: 290 calories; 13 grams protein; 3 grams fat (0.3 gram saturated fat); 53 grams carbohydrate; 460 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 5 grams fiber

Avocado Salsa

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup finely chopped red onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 medium Hass avocado

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, combine onion, cilantro and lime juice. Halve, pit, peel and dice avocado; add to onion mixture. Season with salt and pepper and toss gently. Serve immediately.

Per tablespoon: 25 calories; 0.5 gram protein; 2 grams fat (0.3 gram saturated fat); 2 grams carbohydrate; 1 milligram sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1 gram fiber

Chicken Chili With Hominy

Makes about 9 cups, for 6 servings

4 corn tortillas

3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and cut into 3/4 -inch chunks

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon olive or canola oil

2 small red bell peppers, seeded and diced

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 4-ounce can chopped green chilies

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 14-ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 cups 1 percent milk

2 15-ounce cans white hominy, rinsed

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

lime wedges

Place a tortilla directly on a stove-top burner set at medium-low and toast, turning frequently with tongs, until light golden and fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Cut tortillas into 1-inch-wide strips and set aside.

Season chicken with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, heat 1/2 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil to pan. Add bell peppers and onion; season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add chilies, garlic, chili powder, cumin and oregano; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add chicken broth and milk and bring to a simmer, stirring. Stir in reserved tortilla strips, chicken and hominy.

Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and chili has thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup cilantro. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. (The chili will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.) Serve with remaining cilantro and lime wedges.

Test-kitchen secret: The chili is thickened with corn tortillas, which also contribute to its rich corn flavor.

Serving suggestion: Serve with warmed corn tortillas and a green salad topped with orange slices.

Per serving: 305 calories; 21 grams protein; 6 grams fat (1.1 grams saturated fat); 41 grams carbohydrate; 815 milligrams sodium; 37 milligrams cholesterol; 7 grams fiber

Ultimate Beef Chili

Makes about 12 cups, for 12 servings

1 pound beef round, trimmed and cut into 1/2 -inch chunks

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil

3 onions, chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon paprika

2 teaspoons dried oregano

12 ounces dark or light beer

1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped, juice reserved

8 sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil), snipped into small pieces

2 bay leaves

3 19-ounce cans dark kidney beans, rinsed

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Season beef with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, heat 1/2 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add half the beef and saute until browned on all sides, 2 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with another 1/2 tablespoon oil and remaining beef; set aside.

Reduce heat to medium and add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil. Add onions and bell peppers; cook, stirring frequently, until onions are golden brown, 10 to 20 minutes. Add garlic, jalapenos, cumin, chili powder, paprika and oregano. Stir until aromatic, about 2 minutes.

Add beer and simmer, scraping up any browned bits, for about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and their juice, sun-dried tomatoes, bay leaves and reserved beef. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until beef is very tender.

Add beans; cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until chili has thickened, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove bay leaves. Stir in cilantro and lime juice. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. (The chili will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.)

Per serving: 250 calories; 18 grams protein; 5 grams fat (0.8 gram saturated fat); 33 grams carbohydrate; 585 milligrams sodium; 22 milligrams cholesterol; 9 grams fiber

Pub Date: 02/03/99

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