Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, and bitter: Chilli January 16, 2010Posted by inspiredbywolfe in Beef.
“Chili is one of the great peasant foods. It is one of the few contributions America has to world cuisine. Eaten with corn bread, sweet onion, sour cream, it contains all five of the elements deemed essential by the sages of the Orient: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, and bitter.” – Nero Wolfe, in The Next Witness (part of the Three Witnesses collection).
While Nero Wolfe and Fritz do not appear to cook chilli themselves, Wolfe does enjoy chilli as cooked by a man named Dixie, who works out of a little dump on 170th Street. Chilli to me is a quintessential American dish and is not something that is very common here in Australia. To that end, I’ve never had chilli before – it’s not something available in restaurants and I don’t know anyone who would cook it.
Before I could cook chilli, I had to find some of the ingredients. While Melbourne has fantastic markets and a number of different nationalities’ ingredients to choose from, Mexican food is unfortunately not very well represented. I paid a visit to Casa Iberica to pick up some key things – including the all important chillis! While they focus on Spanish ingredients predominantly, they also stock Portuguese and Mexican food. Apart from Casa Iberica I’m not sure of any other Mexican suppliers in Melbourne – if you know of any others, please let me know. I got a selection of chillis so I have them for other dishes too.
Now for the recipe. With no guidance from the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and no prior chilli experience, I turned to the Homesick Texan. From her post, it’s clear that the chilli preparation is just as important than the cooking! While the Homesick Texan suggests music, I went for films instead. I started with From Dusk til Dawn, hoping that we wouldn’t end up in a bar in Mexico getting attacked by vampires, and then moved on to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, to put the chilli into proper context.
I started with chopping some onion and garlic, and preparing the ancho chillis.
I used three rather than the four that the Homesick Texan advises, as I had less meat and didn’t want to completely overwhelm the dish. I cut off the stems and removed the seeds. Here’s a gratuitous photo of the seeds I removed, just because I like the photo:
I put the chillis on an ungreased skillet until they started to smoke. Then I coughed from the smoke, and THEN I opened the window and turned on the fan! Yeah, I should have done that in slightly a different order! I put the cooked chillis in the blender, added some water and blended it together to make my ‘ancho slurry’. Although my blender looks like a murder scene, it actually smelled great.
Next, I browned my meat. I’d bought pre-cubed meat from the butcher so I was able to throw it straight in. Unfortunately I didn’t have any bacon fat lying around, so I had to resort to browning my meat in butter. It seemed to do the trick just fine!
Next, I cooked the onions and garlic, put the meat back in, then added some coffee, water, and the ancho slurry. Now the waiting game began…
Over the next couple of hours, I stirred it, added more spices, covered it, stirred it some more, added masa harina stirred into beer (thanks again, Casa Iberica – I was doubtful of being able to locate masa harina), stirred it some more, until…
At this point it still needed some more cooking but it was smelling fantastic and looking pretty good too. The meat was very soft by this point and had started to break apart. After a bit more cooking, we had the end result. I squeezed some lime juice over the chilli and served it.
My chilli ended up more saucy than the Homesick Texan’s version. However, it was still ridiculously delicious! It was certainly spicy from the chillis, but not overwhelmingly so, and had a deep, rich flavour which gave it more body and depth than I was expecting from so few ingredients. The meat had become soft and practically melted in the mouth. I served the chilli with just a small amount of sour cream on the side to provide some relief (!) from the chilli.
As for Wolfe’s original statement about chilli: it was certainly pungent, from the chillis, and the coffee gave it some bitterness. It was salty, but not overly so, and also sour – it definitely had a tang – from a combination of the lime juice and also the coffee I think. I’m not sure that it was sweet though. I think the onions gave it a bit of sweetness but I would like to think that the main element of sweetness was the sweet relief brought on by the sour cream when the chilli got too much!
All in all, I’d say my first foray into the world of chilli was a success. I have a new understanding and appreciation for one of America’s contributions to world cuisine. And I have a whole bunch of different types of chillis just waiting to be cooked up into more delicious meals!