This winter, I introduced my 4-year-old daughter, Zoë, to what has become a cold-weather family ritual, the making of my father’s chili recipe.
While the origins of the recipe are murky—it’s apparently my dad’s reworking of something his brother found and passed along—and its ingredients have evolved over the years, the one thing that has remained consistent is the familial, and perhaps slightly spiritual, nature of the enterprise.
First, there’s the selection of the peppers. Buying fresh peppers is a great way to introduce to a child the whole notion of diversity. While we may have preconceived notions of what a pepper is (round, green, and bland), peppers are, in fact, like people: They come in all different shapes, colors, sizes—and intensity levels. I tend to like red and yellow bell peppers, because they are higher in vitamin content than green peppers, and hold their vibrant colors best in the chili mix. (Orange peppers, while beautiful at first, seem to blend in and get lost in the melting pot.) Low-intensity bell peppers allow you to add heat to taste; I have been burned (literally) by experimenting with habaneros or Scotch bonnets.
Then there’s the tactile nature of the chili-making process. Old clothes, a small child, and access to a sink are critical, as you’ll see. And there’s patience required: For reasons I don’t quite understand, this recipe always tastes better the day after you cook it; like a great sports franchise, a great chili is the result of allowing talented ingredients to coalesce into a team. From many diverse ingredients comes one united flavor front.
TOM’S BIG-GAME CHILI
- 1½ pounds grass-fed ground beef, buffalo, or venison
- 2 pounds fresh tomatoes
- 3 Tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
- 2 large peppers
- 1–2 medium yellow onions
- 1 small child
- 1 16-ounce can dark red kidney beans*
- 1 16-ounce can light red kidney or pinto beans*
- Salt, pepper, chili powder, and hot sauce, to taste
*While soaking your own beans is more economical, I’ve never had the patience for it. If you use canned beans, I recommend Eden Organic, which is the only brand that uses BPA-free cans.
- Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cut the tops off the tomatoes to expose the seeds, and drizzle lightly with oil (I like grapeseed oil, which has a fat profile similar to olive oil but doesn’t impart the same strong, savory flavor). Pop ‘em into the oven. Depending on the size of the tomato, roasting may take between 2 and 3 hours; you’re looking for a tomato that’s still juicy, but easily skinned.
- Dice onions. Seed and dice peppers and discard seeds and ribs.
- In a large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of grapeseed oil. Add the peppers and onion and stir fry until mildly softened (2 to 3 minutes).
- Shred the beef by hand and add to the skillet, stirring occasionally until fully browned (3 to 5 minutes). At this point, you may want to add a dash of salt, some black pepper, and chili powder, to infuse the meat. Go easy on the salt (but not on the chili powder!).
- Once the tomatoes are ready, take them out of the oven and allow them to cool. Once they can be handled, slough off the skins and toss into a large stockpot.
- Now the fun part: Place a small child with clean hands on a stepstool by the kitchen counter. Have him or her reach into the pot and mush the tomatoes by hand until they reach a stringy, soupy consistency (the tomatoes, not the child).
- Add the beans, including the liquid. (The liquid contains additional fiber and nutrients.)
- Stir in the meat, peppers, and onions.
- Simmer the mixture over low heat for 1½ hours, adding salt, pepper, chili powder, and hot sauce to taste. (I’ve tried dozens of different hot sauces over the years and still feel basic Tabasco works best in this recipe.) Do not be stingy with the chili powder—contrary to what people often think, chili powder adds a smoky flavor, not a spicy one.
While the chili is already delicious and ready to eat, it will gain even deeper, richer flavor if you refrigerate it overnight before serving.
Stephen Perrine is the Publisher of Rodale Books and Editor-at-Large for Men’s Health. Stephen is the author of The Men’s Health Diet and The Women’s Health Diet (Rodale 2011) and coauthor of The New American Diet, (Rodale, 2009) which exposed how secret obesity-causing chemicals, such as BPA, pesticides, and hormones, are lurking in the American diet. He is a prominent spokesperson for health and family issues and has spoken at the United Nations on the topic of men’s health.