Nelson: The chili season

Jerry Nelson

By Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

When the weather is cold and dreary – or even if it’s warm and cheery – I like to whip up a batch of homemade chili.

Chili is one of the few dishes that’s difficult to botch. And you can be as creative as or as lazy as you like. On one extreme, you could make chili that has so many ingredients that your cupboard and refrigerator are picked clean. At the other extreme, you can simply open a can and dump factory-made chili into a microwavable bowl.

During all my years of chili making, I’ve never had any two batches turn out alike. Perhaps this is because I’ve never followed anything akin to a recipe. Each new batch is either a success or a learning experience. I’ve had numerous learning experiences.

One big lesson had to do with the level of spices. I like my chili somewhere in the vicinity of “whoa Nelly, that’s a bit warm!” while my wife has an aversion to anything spicier than ketchup. And so we compromise, by which I mean I make my chili somewhat on the mild side. Besides, I can add as much heat as I like once the chili is in my serving bowl.

I am of the school of thought that holds “if a pinch of it is good, a fistful has to be better.” This mindset once produced a bowl of chili that was so hot that it could have vaporized an iceberg. When it became clear that I would have to quench my gullet with a fire extinguisher in between bites, I offered the chili to our dog, Sandy. But Sandy was smarter than me. He sniffed the proffered delicacy warily, took an experimental nibble, then swiftly trotted off to slake his thirst at his water dish. I’d had no idea that a dog could hold so much water.

The beauty of chili is that it can be made from nearly anything. There are those who insist that chili should never contain beans, only meat and sauce and spices. There’s a word for that. It’s called stew.

Real chili, as far as I’m concerned, has beans. I prefer fat red kidney beans, but there’s no reason why a person couldn’t infuse their chili with any other type of legume. The only limit is your imagination. Use the old bean.

One spring I struck upon the idea of producing the ultimate chili, that is, a concoction made entirely from homegrown ingredients. I filled our garden with tomatoes and planted a dozen peppers, some of which were rumored to have heat which would exceed that of Hades.

Once the peppers had ripened, I spread them in a sunny window to dry. After several weeks the peppers had turned into shriveled, wrinkly chunks of brownish-red leather. They reminded me of Sylvester Stallone.

I stuffed the desiccated peppers into my electric coffee grinder and pulverized them into a powder. It took a summer’s worth of work and several weeks of drying, but my pepper enterprise was an unqualified success. Plus I saved approximately three dollars by avoiding a trip down the supermarket spice aisle.

Pro tip: be sure to clean your coffee grinder thoroughly after using it to process dried peppers. It’s fine to have hot coffee, but not because of residual cayenne.

We had plenty of burger from our Jersey steers, so all the ingredients were in place to assemble a totally homegrown chili: the beef and the tomatoes, along with peppers that were hot enough to burn through six inches of reinforced concrete.

But alas! I had neglected to plant any sort of bean, neither black nor pinto! I had no choice but to swallow my pride and open a can of commercial kidney beans. Life is full of disappointments.

We are all aware of what the combination of powerful spices and a gutful of legumes can do to the digestive system. My experiences have proven that the more potent the spices, the stronger the reaction. I’m talking about levels of outgassing that could launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Because of this, there have been numerous incidents wherein I was falsely accused of being the source of malodorous emissions. I have been blamed for the aromas when we drove past such things as a malfunctioning sewer plant and a dead fish disposal area.

But chili consumption can also have hygienic benefits. One recent weekend morning I announced to my wife, “I’m going to have a bowl of chili for breakfast.”

“Why would you want to do that?” she replied incredulously.

“Because it’s Saturday,” I said, “And you know how I enjoy my Saturday night bubble baths.”

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at [email protected] His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.