I’m a noncompliant chili chef. I spot a chili recipe, break out the stockpot and handily ignore most of the instructions, unable to keep myself from throwing anything and everything into the mix. Thank goodness food writer, cookbook author and sometime Iron Chef America judge Melissa Clark has come along with a recipe to show me, bite by bite, the merit of chili discipline. A handful of ingredients, well prepared, rather than a whole spice rack of cacophony, are her shared secret.
Bringing a Melissa Clark recipe into your kitchen is like inviting that friend over who always has delicious ideas and solid advice delivered without an ounce of airs. Her cooking is straightforward and smart, at once elegant and inviting. I’ve “known” Melissa, oh, for about a decade, though we’ve never met in person. She wrote food stories I edited at Martha Stewart; she writes my favorite New York Times Dining column, A Good Appetite; I follow her Tweets; we’re Facebook friends. This is all to say I like her style, love her recipes and call her a friend even though we haven’t had the pleasure of sharing a table.
Like lots of food fans, I eagerly awaited her new cookbook, Cook This Now, and last weekend invited friends to a supper of her Spicy Three-Meat Chili and a batch of Alex Guarnaschelli’s Cast Iron Skillet Corn Bread. (I think we were the only folks in New York who were excited for the stormy weather, which made the cozy foods even more welcome.) Of the 120 recipes in Melissa’s book, I hankered to make the chili because it sounded comfy yet easy enough for an already-packed afternoon. It’s a simple combination of meat, peppers and onions, garlic and a trio of tomatoes — plus chili powder — that together add up to more than you’d expect from their parts.
The base of Melissa’s chili is three pounds of meat, one each of beef, veal and pork (throughout the book she encourages substitutions and swaps; here ground turkey or just a combo of beef and pork would work equally well, she says). I hesitated to brown the meats one at a time as she suggested, wondering if the time would be worth it. “Cooking the meat separately,” she says, “is just an easy way of making sure the pot doesn’t get overcrowded. If the meat doesn’t brown properly, the chili won’t have as deep a flavor.” Ten minutes? Worth it — each meat brings its own layer of taste and partners with the aromatics for a chunky, classic bowl of chili.
It was after the chili simmered and had the kitchen smelling of nice spice that my tendency to improvise got useful. The beauty of Melissa’s dish is the infinite ways you and your guests can make it your own. I shredded some Jack cheese, sliced some grape tomatoes, tore some cilantro leaves and cut up some scallions so everyone could add on their own garnishes, along with sour cream and hot sauce. All told, the chili took little more than half an hour to prepare. I made a spinach salad and set the table with the toppings, some rice and Alex’s rich, super-moist buttermilk cornbread on the side.
Organized in a month-by-month format, the book includes just the right recipes for every season, relying on familiar favorites given life and personality with Melissa’s own touch. “These are exactly the kinds of recipes I love — easy (this being imperative), relatively healthful, seasonal and with lots of flavor,” she says. I couldn’t agree more, and I can’t help but look forward to cooking more from her book. I hear from my friend and blogger Sassy Radish that the Stir-Fried Chicken With Oyster Mushrooms is not to be missed (nor is Olga’s post, a delightfully written love note to Melissa’s work and their friendship). As November’s temperatures dip, I also have my eye on the Ham Bone, Beans and Greens Soup recipe that Faith Durand at The Kitchn wrote about last week — it sounds like a steamy antidote to the chill in the air.
The other relief to such coolness, of course, is coming together for a satisfying meal — in this case with chili and folks close to me in my own kitchen, as well as at the broader table of friends in the food community, paths crossing, glasses clinking, all brought together even when we’re miles apart.
SPICY THREE-MEAT CHILI
From COOK THIS NOW by Melissa Clark. Copyright © 2011,
Melissa Clark, Inc. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ground beef or bison
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus additional to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, more to taste
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground veal
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 to 2 jalapeños, seeded and finely chopped, to taste
3 tablespoons chili powder, plus additional to taste
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, broken up with a fork
3 cups cooked kidney beans or 2 (15 ounce) cans, drained and rinsed
Chopped fresh cilantro, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving
1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the beef and cook, breaking up with a fork, until well browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Season the meat with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Remove the beef with a slotted spoon and transfer the meat to a paper towel–lined platter. Repeat the cooking process twice more with the pork and veal. Season each with 1/2 teaspoon salt.
2. Add the tomato paste to the pot. Cook, stirring, until the paste is golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the peppers, onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Cook until the vegetables are softened, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in the chili powder and a pinch of salt; cook 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, beans, 2 cups water, and the remaining salt. Return the meat to the pot. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Ladle the chili into bowls. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with lime wedges.
More Tips from Melissa
• This chili freezes well.
• Try the chili over brown rice, either coconut or plain.
• Don’t underestimate the power of good-quality chili powder. I usually use a mix of mild and hot New Mexico chili powders, but there are so many kinds to choose from, from mild anchos to super-spicy chile de arbol, and since the art of serious chili making is really all about achieving that perfect blend, you should feel free to experiment. If you want to go whole hog, you can even buy dried whole chiles and grind your own in a spice grinder.
• If you get to the bottom of your chili leftovers and want to stretch them to feed your whole family one more time, stir in some cooked elbow macaroni or rinsed, canned hominy.
• If possible, buy your ground veal at your farmers’ market instead of the supermarket. If you really can’t do veal, then just do half pork and half beef, or all pork or all beef, or even turkey if you like. As long as you’ve got 3 pounds of ground meat of some type, the recipe will come out fine.