May it Please the Palate: In search of workaday chili

By Nick Roumel

It was a chilly November 30th. I had worked, as it too often happens, late into the evening. I was hungry for supper and had a craving for but one thing: a bowl of good chili. You ever get those cravings? When I was in college, my roommate and I would joke, "I have a pizza-sized hole in my stomach that only a pizza can fill." On this night, it was chili.

I briefly considered making some, but it was 9:30 and I'd had a long day. So I went into my local Whole Foods, where I knew they always had some on the hot bar. Regular readers know my relationship with WF is tenuous at best. Its most positive quality is its proximity to my house.

So I sallied forth into said specialty establishment, straight to the hot bar. Gone! Broken down for the night, with who-knows-what done with the leftovers. Hoping some kind soul would locate the vat back in the kitchen for me, I went to the pizza counter (in front of the kitchen) to ask the True Believer stationed there.

"No sir, the chili is ALL GONE!" the True Believer said cheerfully. "Would you like a slice of pizza instead?" I shook my head. "I'm not feeling it," I told him, perhaps a little too sullenly. I wanted chili.

Off to my neighborhood tavern. This establishment has a hard-working cook-owner who makes more than passable bar food, but alas--no chili.

It was getting late. Then I had a brainstorm. Across the street, there was a Chili's! As in, "Chili-jalapeno-pepper-apostrophe-s!" Surely, this national chain would take pride in their namesake food, and generously fill my craving! I sidled up to the bar, ordered a beer, and my long awaited bowl of chili.

Minutes later, a bowl of something completely topped with cheese arrived. The bartender sensed my pout. Yes, I reluctantly told him. I would like a bowl without cheese. This was my fantasy: spoonful after spoonful of thick, chunky, spicy chili nirvana, washed down with a cold beer.

But here was the naked, cheese-less reality: a bowl of tomato broth, with bits of gristle. Barely discernible gristle, at that. Not even a freaking cracker.

Honestly, I was beside myself. I had visions of writing the corporate offices of "Chili-jalapeno-pepper-apostrophe-s" and getting vice presidents to prostrate themselves before me, pleading with me to give them another chance. I would start a movement. I would Facebook and Twitter into the millions, and make the Yahoo front page.

Nah, too much effort. I just wanted a bowl of decent chili. So I made it myself.

Here's the beautiful thing about chili. It takes minutes to make, it's completely satisfying, and it's even better the next day. Remember what I wrote a few weeks ago, about cooking not always being glamorous, but involving regular preparation night after night? Chili's on the easy side. On a cold November evening, you can book it, guaranteed.

Nick's Workaday Chili

1 lb. good ground chuck

1/2 large yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 minced jalapeno (optional)

1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes, e.g. San Marzano, Hunt's

whatever spices you got

1/2 can kidney beans

Cook chuck. Remove meat and drain. Cook onion in remaining fat. Add garlic, jalapeno.

After a minute, put chuck back in pot. Add diced tomato.

Here come the spices: use whatever you got. I used: 1 healthy TBS ground medium-to-hot chili, 1 TBS cumin, a teaspoon of Mexican or regular oregano, tsp. Cajun or regular seasoning salt, tsp. of Frank's Hot Sauce (ancient Greek recipe), 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper, 1/2 tsp. Tajin chili-lime seasoning, salt to taste.

Add the beans. Heat it up. Eat it right away. Wash it down with a cold beer or some apple cider. Put some on corn chips. Put some more on a hot dog. You can even put cheese on it, if it's real chili.

One more thing: stay the heck away from Whole Foods and "Chili-jalapeno-pepper-apostrophe-s!" Keep it real, and stay warm.

Published: Thu, Dec 6, 2012