- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

A simmering pot of chili is so common in American kitchens that we have earned the right to call this dish our own.

Chili-cooking contests for home cooks abound, and chili restaurants offer the warming bowl in numerous flavors. Although I grew up in the United States, I had a chili-deprived childhood. My mother disliked strong flavors and didn’t make it.

During my years studying cooking in France, my palate became attuned to subtle flavors. On the rare occasions when a Parisian chef used cayenne pepper — in a butter sauce, for example — he emphasized the importance of adding only the tiniest amount, the amount you could lift on a paring knife’s point.

When I tasted my first bowl of red, I was overwhelmed by its fiery flavor. It was at a chili house in New York, and I ordered it “medium.” The chili came in a deep bowl and was boiling hot. Although I was hungry, I could eat only two or three spoonfuls. The few crackers served on the side didn’t help much.

Some months later, I ate a dish that recalled chili, not at an American restaurant but at an Indian eatery. The entree, called “keema,” was very spicy, and this time I enjoyed it. Neelam Batra, author of “1,000 Indian Recipes” (Wiley), calls it “the south Indian version of chili” and makes it from beef or lamb cooked in coconut milk with onion, garlic, ginger and plenty of spice, including turmeric, dried red chile peppers, cumin and black mustard seeds.

For me, there was one important difference between this chili and the first one I had tasted. The Indian chili was served as a sauce over aromatic basmati rice. The rice absorbed the heat of the peppery mixture and was complemented by it.

Soon, I was hooked on chili and began to look for it in other cuisines. It turned out that many culinary cultures boast such saucy dishes of ground meat and spice, with and without beans. At an Afghan meal, I sampled a chili-like mixture served over mantu, a sort of tortellino, and topped with yogurt. The Afghan chili was spiced with ground coriander and had legumes, too — yellow split peas. Actually, it was served like a spicy spaghetti sauce.

These examples showed me the value of chili as a topping. Chili is so intensely flavored that eating it on its own feels almost like eating a sauce by the spoonful. Good bread, rice or pasta immeasurably enhances the chili experience. I love American or Tex-Mex chili with tortillas, a time-honored accompaniment, or over spaghetti.

Bolivian cooks have a similar idea, with potatoes acting as a foil for the chili’s richness. According to Maria Baez Kijac, author of “The South American Table: The Flavor and Soul of Authentic Home Cooking From Patagonia to Rio De Janeiro” (Harvard Common Press), Bolivian cooks prepare a dish called “saice” from ground beef sauteed with onions and garlic, then simmered with tomatoes, cumin, oregano and dried hot red pepper. After green peas are added, the Bolivian chili is spooned over sliced boiled potatoes and topped with jalapeno-onion relish.

Cooks in the Middle East also prepare countless chili-like dishes and serve them with flatbread. In Egypt, it might be lentil-and-lamb chili with cilantro or beef-and-fava-bean chili garnished with olives. Armenians opt for beef with chickpeas and dill, whereas multibean combinations are favored in Iran.

Some chili connoisseurs insist on using cubes of beef. That’s fine if you have several hours, but when time is short, ground meat is the best choice. Although classic American chili is made of beef, today many substitute turkey, chicken or even vegetarian soy products.

If you have a carb phobia, you can serve your chili over baked or broiled eggplant slices or steamed spaghetti squash. The neutral taste provides a good balance for the chili. And if you are really passionate about protein, you can make chili dogs, although for my taste, spooning meaty chili over frankfurters is overkill.

Quick and garlicky Middle Eastern chili

This chili is flavored with coriander, cumin, cayenne and cilantro, which are popular among Egyptian cooks. If you don’t have coriander and cumin in your pantry, you can substitute 2 or 3 teaspoons of chili powder. Chili powder is a blend of dried chilies, cumin and oregano.

Note that some spice jars labeled “pure chili powder” may contain only ground chilies rather than a spice blend and, depending on the chilies used, may be very hot and should be added a little at a time, to taste.

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

2 large onions, chopped

8 large garlic cloves, minced

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 pound extra-lean ground beef

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 cups tomato sauce

1 cup beef or chicken broth (or water)

Salt, freshly ground pepper

1 cups frozen lima beans, cooked

1 to 2 cups cooked white beans or a 15-ounce can, drained

⅓ cup chopped cilantro

Cayenne pepper

Black or green olives, pita or other flatbread, optional

Steamed rice, spaghetti or ravioli, optional

Plain yogurt, optional

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy saute pan. Add onions, and saute over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until tender and golden. (Add more oil if onions start to stick or brown.) Add garlic, and saute for 30 seconds. Remove half of mixture and set aside.

To onion mixture in pan, add bell pepper, beef, coriander and cumin, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until meat changes color.

Add tomato sauce, broth or water and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until meat is cooked through.

Add lima and white beans. If chili is too thick, add cup or more water to thin to desired consistency. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes or until stew is thick and well-flavored. Add reserved onion-garlic mixture, 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro and cayenne pepper to taste.

Cover and heat through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve garnished with remaining chopped cilantro. Or garnish with black or green olives and serve with pita or other flatbread. Or spoon over rice, spaghetti or ravioli. If you like, serve yogurt on the side. Makes about 6 servings.

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