Thursday, May 15, 2008

Nasal Decongestant Chili

When it comes to chile con carne, I am hard to please. Nothing spoils one like living in Yuma, Arizona (a quaint suburb of San Luis, Sonora, on the lower Colorado River).

Mexican food within lunch-rush range of two Mexican states (Sonora and Baja California) is quite different from the caricature of it one gets to know in the Midwest. Or even in Texas. Things you expect to find on the menu (like folded tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, and chimichangas) are emphatically missing. Things you may never have heard of (like albondigas, pollo con mole, menudo, and machaca) cry out to be discovered. And things you thought you knew are served in quite a different way.

Here I am speaking of Mexican restaurants run by Mexican people and catering to mostly Mexican customers. I am speaking of homestyle food, plain, unadorned, and savory; of the best breakfast and lunch burritos in the world; of rolled tacos that you buy in orders of 4 or 6 and dip in salsa as a side dish; of the luxury of knowing someone with a Mexican-American mother-in-law (e.g., any ex-Marine you know) and who thereby has an endless and ready supply of homemade tamales in the freezer; and most especially, of chile served on one-third of a large plate, with the other two-thirds divided between Spanish rice and refried beans.

Because beans are on the side, there are none in the chile. This makes a remarkable difference. In the midwest, except maybe in Ohio, we are accustomed to thinking of chile as a bean stew in a peppery tomato broth. In Sonoran chile, the recipe may include sizable chunks of tomato (along with peppers and onions), but the broth if any is of the beef persuasion. The main thrust of the argument is chili peppers and meat: green chilis, green tomatoes, and pulled pork if it's chile verde; red chilis, red tomatoes, and carne asada (pulled beef) if it's chile colorado. Either one is great with refried beans mixed in; that's why the Gutierrez family's restaurants do such a roaring trade in "green mix" and "red mix" burritos.

Yes, this challenges the orthodoxy of Midwestern chile, just as my theory that pizza is essentially "bread with stuff on it" (and so a pizza is only as good as its crust) challenges the orthodoxy of St. Louis's favorite "pizza," which I prefer to call "deluxe cheese and crackers." The "so spicy it brings tears to your eyes tomato-bean-and-beef soup" type of chile misses the point of the dish. My theory is that "chile," in and of itself, is the red or green sauce - chiefly made of chili peppers, onions, and tomatoes - that authentic Mexican restaurants serve on top of enchiladas. It's basically what comes in cans labeled "Ro-Tel." Add pork, beef, or lamb to that and you have "chile con carne." It doesn't have to be searingly hot. Most restaurants serve side-dishes of house-made salsa picante, and/or have bottles of red-hot sauce on the tables, so you can season your own food to taste and no one has to sweat more than they like.

Tonight I made my own personal, bastardized style of chile, whose successive incarnations I have consistently (and accurately) called "Nasal Decongestant Chile." I could have called it "Turkish Bath Chile" (because it flushes so many unwholesome humors out of one's pores). I could have called it "Sauna Chile" (because my glasses fog up while I'm eating it, so it evidently affects the local humidity). I could have called it lots of Sonoran Desert-related things, like "javelina chile," or "gila monster chile," or "the scorpion," or "the coyote." But I haven't come up with anything more apt than "Sudafed in a Pan."

Here's the recipe I went with tonight. In a medium-sized saucepan brown about a pound of 90% lean ground beef, crumbled up with a middling onion chopped into haphazard chunks. Rather large chunks, because you're lazy. While that's browning, stir in some chili powder (chipotle is more than acceptable), cumin (the essential flavor to the Midwestern palate), and garlic powder (because you forgot to buy fresh garlic when you were shopping - one clove minced would have been better). Once it looks pretty well browned, dump in one or two little cans of diced chilis (I went with "mild" this time). Sprinkle in one or two leafy herbs if you like (like basil or cilantro). If you remembered to drain the grease out of the meat mixture before you started adding stuff (which I didn't), you can add low-fat beef broth toward the end (only I didn't have room in the pan this time; no worries). Bring everything to a simmer until it's heated all the way through. Period.

I omitted the side of beans and rice, but I did garnish with a bit of shredded cheese and some Town House crackers. Recipe yields two fat-stupid-jerk-sized portions, one of which will taste even better after refrigerating overnight in a sealed container.

Isn't that simple? And hot... Excuse me. I have to go blow my nose.

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