My self-imposed mission was straightforward: create a chili that my daughter, an 8-year-old monomaniac of buttered noodles, would embrace, or at least ingest. The path of least resistance was likewise clear: moderate spice, faint sweetness, a few blandishments like corn kernels and bacon.
Like many quests, mine ended in ambiguity and unintended consequences. My daughter's elementary school awarded an early version of the dish top prize in its annual chili contest. Strolling the school's winter carnival with my first-ever culinary booty—an apron and wooden spoon—I was beset with recipe requests that were too proactive to be merely polite ("Let me give you my email address ... "). A few days later, my extended family went for second and third helpings during that sleepy post-Thanksgiving weekend when appetites are usually cased in lead.
My daughter was less easily persuaded. She 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 gingerly approached spoon. There was presumably an exchange of a few chili molecules. The verdict was decisive: "Aw Dad, do I have to eat this?"
I'm sure my betters have suffered worse. I imagine Picasso's little ones shouting in corrective glee, "Her nose is on wrong!" Joyce's tikes must have asked, "Is this really English, Pop?" Kids are the swine for whom our pearls exist in the first place. Casting them is equally measured in joy, agony and irony, but at least we get to clean their bowls when they lock their elbows and hold dinner at arm's length.
The strength of my chili—if I may defend it—is that it pilfers traditional mole technique. The dried guajillos are toasted, hydrated and pureed, creating a substratum of flavor that shames your standard diner chili (i.e., bare-bones Bolognese with cumin and Tabasco veiling the logic of ladling it over spaghetti). I envision variations with different chilies—the fruity ancho, the smoky chipotle, whatever happens to be in the cupboard—laying the foundations.
To my mind, however, the secret ingredient—the inspired unlikelihood—is masa harina. It both thickens the gravy and lends a loamy lime-maize nuance that my imagination connects with the dusty flatlands of the Southwest. Lacking this finishing touch, the chili is somehow denatured, suburbanized, like Jewish rye bread without the caraway seeds.
Chapel Thrill Chili
6 dried guajillo chilies
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
2 medium yellow onions, preferably Vidalia
1 medium garlic bulb
12 oz. unflavored, thick-cut bacon
20 oz. "meatloaf mix" (i.e., ground pork, beef and veal)
2 16-oz. cans dark red kidney beans, drained
2 16-oz. cans pinto beans, drained
1 11-oz. can corn kernels, drained
Aromatics and Spices
1/3 cup Heinz ketchup
1/4 cup apricot jam
3 Tbsp. Gulden's "Spicy Brown Mustard"
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. cumin
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. guajillo chili powder (or to taste)
1 tsp. liquid smoke
1 tsp. Tabasco Sauce (or to taste)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup masa harina
1 tsp. kosher salt (or to taste)
In a dry frying pan, toast the chilies until fragrant and slightly charred. Place the chilies in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let the chilies soften for 20 minutes. Discard the stems, seeds and dirtied water. Place the chilies and 1/3 cup fresh water in a blender and purée to the smoothest possible consistency. Add tomatoes and their juice to the blender. Briefly puree, retaining some texture.
Finely dice the peppers and onions (1/4-inch cubes, about the size of a front tooth). Finely mince the garlic. Fry the bacon in a large, non-stick pot until it crisps and renders its fat. Remove and roughly chop the bacon. Add peppers, onions and garlic to the hot bacon fat and sauté until the onions have lightly browned, 10–15 minutes.
Add the ground meat and bacon. Cook until meat has browned. Stir in the tomato-chili mixture, followed by the beans and corn. Add the ketchup, jam, mustard, butter, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, olive oil, vinegar, chili powder, liquid smoke, Tabasco Sauce and black pepper.
Add the masa harina, stirring until the chili has thickened. Add kosher salt in increments, tasting after each quarter-teaspoon addition. Simmer over low-medium heat for at least 30 minutes, allowing flavors to meld. Serve immediately or—even better—after a 24-hour spell in the refrigerator.
Over- and under-salting are the perils of this recipe. The salt content of bacon and canned beans varies dramatically by brand. For reasons of both salt control and taste, I recommend Hormel's Natural Choice Original Uncured Bacon and Bush's reduced-sodium beans, in which case the addition of 1 tsp. of kosher salt should be roughly correct. I recommend Muir Glen's Organic Whole Peeled Plum Tomatoes (glory of the canned vegetable aisle) and Green Giant's Steam Crisp Yellow and White Corn Kernels. Dried guajillo chilies and guajillo chili powder are available in Latino grocery stores. For a spicier chili, double the quantities of chili powder and Tabasco Sauce. For a sweeter chili, add an additional 2 Tbsp. of apricot jam.
Butter adds sheen, richness and flavor. As chefs will decline to tell you, butter is the reason restaurant food tastes unnaturally good. And all these years you told yourself that mashed potatoes are healthier than fries!