The first dish I cooked from scratch happened in fall 1981, my first semester out of college, living in Southern California. It was sometime after the appearance of the annual TV Guide Season Preview edition. We all of a certain age remember those, right?
This thick edition featured previews of all the new shows, updates on returning shows and, seasoned amid all that, some unique features. The 1981 edition had a clip-out thing with the actor Vic Tayback, in all his “Alice” glory (rolled-up white hat, white t-shirt), sharing the recipe for Mel’s chili. Curious thing is that I didn’t watch “Alice.” Ever. But I wanted to make that chili, and it came out great. Of course, at the tender age of 22, saying something came out great means it was edible.
My chili has grown considerably in depth of ingredients and flavor over the years, and I no longer need to refer back to Mel’s recipe as I did for at least 10 years, but the baseline recipe still has some “Mel” in it. Namely, I still typically use some type of ground meat, onions, garlic, tomato paste and red kidney beans. I remember my very first modification, probably the second time I made the chili, was adding diced green peppers. Diced red pepper followed shortly after.
Soon enough, my chili became the regular main dish at the annual Gura household Super Bowl party, and I tried to do something different with it just about every year. So, among the additions (which sometimes also required deletions), were diced tomatoes (I now use Rotel hot diced tomatoes), roasted garlic, cocoa powder, various types of chili powders and seasonings rather than the packets of chili seasoning the recipe called for, canned green chiles, and diced jalapeno. A breakthrough ingredient some 15 years ago (I think I have to credit chef Steven Raichlen for this) was dark beer, as substitute for the water needed with the tomato paste. I’ve used ground bison. Used ground venison. Used smoked brisket (that might have been my best chili ever, Super Bowl party 2017).
Now comes a new challenge. Making chili without a kitchen, which became my mission one recent weekend while Terrie was taking a trip to West Virginia to buy colorful new Fiesta dishes for our soon-be-be completed kitchen. Fortunately, in our current state of kitchen-lessness, Terrie and I have two useful things for making chili. A multi-purpose slow cooker and a toaster oven; the former was the star of the day for the new batch.
I’m not going to bore you all with the details. Suffice to say, while I roasted a bulb of garlic in the toaster oven, I diced up peppers and onions and lined up the other key ingredients (Guinness Foreign Extra Stout was the beer). I browned the bison in the slow cooker and flavored it with a taco skillet sauce, then removed the bison to sauté the vegetables. Eventually, everything went back into the slow cooker and I left it on low for 2½ hours. With the jalapeno pepper flakes and ground chipotle that I added, this chili came out, to quote Jim Carrey in Masked, “ssssmokin!”
Ingredients (makes about 8 portions)
1 pound ground bison* (notes below)
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 each green and red peppers, diced
1 medium jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bulb garlic
1 can Rotel diced tomatoes (I used the “hot” variety)*
2 small cans of chopped green chiles*
1 10-ounce can tomato paste
1 12-ounce beer*
1 packet Frontera brand taco skillet sauce (you will need less than half the packet)
2 cans red pinto beans (for this I used dark red; normally I mix dark and light red beans), drained
1-2 Tbsp. ground chipotle*
A pinch or two of dried jalapeno flakes
1 Tbsp. cocoa powder
Salt and pepper
Slow cooker and toaster oven for cooking*
- Bison can be substituted with ground beef, ground turkey or other favored protein; chili also works great with different kinds of stewed or smoked meats cut into small chunks.
- Rotel makes three varieties of diced tomatoes; use whichever suits your heat preference.
- I used Ortega’s fire-roasted, mild chopped green chiles for this batch, but any will do.
- I like to use a dark beer; for this batch it was Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which Terrie thought was too bold but it was the only bottle of dark beer in the “downstairs” fridge.
- Ground chipotle can be substituted with other types of seasoning such as ancho chili powder or a seasoning packet mix or a combination of seasonings, all based on heat preference and desired flavor profile. And another thought on seasoning: add in whatever you like on a given day. Chili never comes out exactly the same, at least in our kitchen. And that’s OK.
- If you don’t have a multipurpose slow cooker, you could brown the beef and sauté the vegetables in a fry pan, then add all other ingredients into a cast-iron pot.
- Needless to say, garlic can be roasted in a regular oven. Unless you’re remodeling your kitchen.
- I like to use a block of cheese rather than pre-shredded. Because this batch came out spicy, I used a Colby-jack blend. If your chili’s heat factor is low, Trader Joe’s makes a habanero pepper jack that works great and you can make your own bowl as spicy as you want.
- Pre-heat toaster oven to 400° F. Cut off head of garlic bulb, drizzle with olive oil and wrap in foil. Cook 1 to 1½ hours until the bulb is soft and golden brown.
- Brown ground bison in multipurpose slow cooker on brown setting, adding in small batches to avoid steaming. After initial browning, add skillet sauce to coat bison, then remove from slow cooker.
- Add olive oil and sauté the vegetables about 5 minutes until soft and translucent.
- Change setting to slow cook on low, return ground bison to the slow cooker, and then add in Rotel diced tomatoes, beer and tomato paste. Add seasonings. Mix all ingredients well. If mixture appears too thin, gradually add more tomato paste; if too thick, add water.
- After cooking about 90 minutes, add kidney beans and heat through.