Last year's self-imposed mission was straightforward: Create a chili (i.e., protein vehicle) that my 8-year-old daughter would embrace or at least ingest. I devised an intricate guajillo-based Tex-Mex chili that took on her palate like a water-balloon taking on a brick wall (enter keyword "Chapel Thrill Chili" on the Indy's site for that recipe).
My daughter eyed the few tablespoons of "goop" in her little bowl. She sniffed from a distance. She sniffed from an inch. She extended her tongue. Like a docking spacecraft, tongue approached spoon. There was presumably an exchange of chili molecules. The verdict was decisive: "Aw dad, do I have to eat this?"
I then had a Ray Kroc moment. I realized I must not challenge or attempt to elevate my daughter's taste, but pander to it. But how? My mind rifled possibilities: Halloween candy chili ... chili on Eggo waffles ... hot dog chili ....
Hot dog chili seemed not entirely batty. Playing with the idea, I arrived at sausage chili ... at Italian sausage chili ... and finally at Italian "white chili," a chili in the spirit of ... Fellini ... 8 ½ ... a sophisticated, playful, monochromatic chili at which Anouk Aimée, icily beautiful in her white Mao jacket, might sneer in existential disgust.
I was on to something. My daughter would have to put up with the results.
The challenge was to jettison just about everything that defines chili—ground beef, tomato, kidney beans, peppers, Tabasco—and reinvent the dish on more sumptuous Mediterranean lines. I envisioned Italian sausage and cannellini beans lolling in a creamy béchamel, with Parmigiano-Reggiano, white wine, sage and truffle oil providing sociocultural context and allusion. I wanted to evoke the yachts in the harbor at San Remo. But was this possible through the medium of glorified stew?
I considered raiding Southern Season's deli counter for imports like pancetta, prosciutto and soppressata, but I abandoned the idea for reasons of expense (prosciutto di San Daniele: $39.99/lb.) and salt management. Italian sausage is enough of a salt lick to support a whole veld of foraging animals, while Parmigiano-Reggiano is simply the rich man's sodium. I didn't want to add fuel to the fire. (I later realized that low-sodium beans help with salt mitigation).
The finished product was identifiably chili—ground meat, beans and diced vegetables swimming in gravy—but did not look completely wrong served in our white Royal Copenhagen China. I debuted it with a beautiful loaf of pane casareccio from Weaver Street Market, a lightly dressed salad and a Pinot Grigio.
My daughter's chili review? "Hey dad, this is actually kind of good." Am I getting better or is she growing up?
Italian "White" Chili
400 grams yellow onion, peeled (1 large, preferably Vidalia onion)
300 grams carrot, trimmed and peeled (about 4 medium carrots)
300 grams celery, trimmed (4–5 medium stalks)
50 grams garlic, peeled (1 large head)
5 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/4 lb. meatloaf mix (pork, beef, veal)
1 lb. "mild" Italian sausage, casings removed
1 cup dry white wine
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
6 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
6 cups whole milk (preferably from Maple View Farm)
120 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated, plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
4 cans (15.5 oz. each) reduced-sodium cannellini beans, thoroughly drained
15 sage leaves
1 Tbsp. truffle oil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. finely ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 tsp. kosher salt (or to taste)
Dice the onion, carrot and celery into 1/4-inch pieces. Finely mince the garlic and the sage leaves. Add 4 Tbsp. olive oil to a large non-stick pot and sauté the onions until lightly browned, 6–8 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, garlic and the final tablespoon of olive oil. Sauté until the vegetables have softened, 6 minutes. Add the meatloaf mix and sausage. Cook the meat until browned. Add the wine and braise until the liquid has largely evaporated, about 5 minutes. Remove the vegetable-meat mixture and wipe the pot clean. In the same pot, melt 6 Tbsp. butter. Add 6 Tbsp. flour and stir vigorously to create a thick paste. Gradually add the milk, whisking vigorously to incorporate and eliminate lumps. Whisk constantly over medium-high heat until sufficiently thickened to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, cream, black pepper and nutmeg, stirring to incorporate. Add the vegetable-meat mixture, beans, sage leaves, truffle oil, oregano and red pepper flakes. Simmer until the chili has thickened and its flavors have blended, about 30 minutes. Add the cornmeal (for texture, flavor and final thickening). Taste and add salt as necessary. Serve in shallow bowls, topped with a fluffy mound of microplaned Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Note that Parmigiano-Reggiano is not the stuff in the green can. If it's not obscenely expensive, it's not P-R.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A BUONA BOWL."