This little piggy went to chili

Note 1: This is the pork chili that won last weekend’s 2010 Magnolia Lane neighborhood chili cookoff. One of the requirements was that the winning cook share his or her recipe. Hence this post.

Note 2: I’m not even calling this a recipe, which is a document tells you what you should do to prepare a certain dish. Think of it more like technical documentation that explains what I did in the event that it needs to be reproduced.  My neighbors and I thought this was good prepared this way, but you could modify it in any of a thousand ways. I mean, this is chili. It’s about creativity, not exactitude.

Note 3: I made this dish with ingredients I happened to have on hand. If pork loin hadn’t been on sale at the grocery store earlier in the week, I would have made a different dish altogether.  Again I say: making chili is an act of creativity.

What you need

  • Bacon (6-8 strips)
  • A hunk of pork. I used probably one-and-a-half to two pounds of pork loin, but you could use some pork shoulder or something, too.  Cut it into nice chunky chunks.  Chubby one-inch cubes are nice.
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 jalepeno pepper, finely chopped.  (Wash your hands thoroughly after chopping hot peppers. And don’t rub your eyes. Really. I know this from experience.)
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 small can of diced green chiles (I actually didn’t use these in the winning recipe,  but I would have if I had them, so I’ll pretend I did.)
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes.  I like diced tomatoes way better than stewed tomatoes (though my mom uses stewed tomatoes in chili, and her chili is tasty.)  When we were kids, my brother and I called the stewed tomatoes in my mom’s chili “chickens.”  I have no idea why.
  • Some sort of chipotle spice (I used Penzey’s chipotle spice)
  • Your favorite chili powder (I used Penzey’s chili powder)
  • Cumin (I don’t know what brand I used)
  • 6-8 cups of good chicken broth. (This was the thing I skimped on at the cook-off.  I didn’t have any broth on hand, so I just made some up with some cheap Swanson’s bullion, which I thought was way too salty, actually.  The chili would have been better with better broth.)
  • 2-3 cans of red beans, rinsed and drained. I think you should always rinse beans thoroughly in a colander before cooking with them. It’s fun to watch the gas bubbles appear as you do this. Sometimes it almost looks like a lather of soap. If you don’t rinse the beans well, these gasses all go in your belly. Cooks who don’t rinse beans are actually kind of mean.
  • A splash of lime juice
  • A pinch of sugar (I have big hands, and therefore big pinches)
  • A cup of coffee (Yes, I dumped the last of the morning’s coffee in the chili pot.)
  • Some vinegar
  • A dollop of molasses
  • Some chopped cilantro

What you do

(Or, rather, what I did.  You can do what you want.  Have I mentioned that making chili is an act of creativity?)

  1. Start with bacon.  This is rarely a bad way to start any dish, except maybe fruit smoothies. Everyone (OK, other than vegetarians or adherents to several major world religions) enjoys bacon. You know those people who say they don’t like bacon? Well, they actually do like bacon. I fried up about 6-8 strips of thick bacon in the bottom of a big heavy pot.  My favorite bacon is “No Name” brand bacon.  When you fry bacon, I think it’s best to keep the heat pretty low and don’t get it totally crunchy.  I prefer thick meaty bacon with a little “chew” to it to really crispy, dry baco-bit-style bacon. By the way, a lot of people like cooking soups and stews and such in crockpots, but I don’t.  I like using a heavy pot over heat that I can control. This way I can sear meat over high heat, then cook veggies in the fats from the meat, then lower the temperature to simmer everything together.  I have a Calphalon soup pot that is pretty much awesome.
  2. Once the bacon is done, take it out of the pot and put it aside.  After it cools a little, you’ll chop it into little quarter inch chunks.
  3. Drain some but not all of the bacon fat out of the pot.  Hang on to that drained bacon grease, in case you need it for any reason, like additional fat for the recipe or bear bait or hair gel.
  4. Fry  up the pork hunks in the bacon fat.  This takes patience.  Do not throw all of them in the pot at once.  Do not overstir them.  Do not be afraid to let them cook.  Just put a handful in the bottom of the pot, nicely spaced out, and let them cook over medium-high heat in the bacon grease so that they get a nice sear on them.  Treat them like children: care for them – deeply – but don’t be overprotective. Only after they’ve browned on one side should you disturb them by lifting them gently with some tongs and flipping them to another side, like you’d flip over your pillow in the middle of a hot night.  Then let them cook on that other side.  Repeat until you’ve got nicely seared pork hunks.  Then take them out, put them on a plate, and repeat with the next batch.  You might have to do this in 3-4 separate batches.  Also, keep the plate out of reach of the dog, who by this time will be wandering around looking for anything to drop.
  5. Once the pork hunks are cooked and set aside, put the chopped onion, garlic, and jalapeno in the pot.  Cook them over med-low heat in the yummy bacon and pork grease that has now accumulated on the bottom of your pot.  Add more grease or maybe butter or oil if you need to.  As this stuff softens, add the chili powder, chipotle spice, and cumin.  How much?  Up to you, man. As much as you like.
  6. Throw in a splash of wine.  If no one is looking, take a swig straight from the bottle. Throw in another splash.  Splash in some lime juice (maybe 2-3 tablespoons.)  Let this all soften.
  7. After about a minute, add the red bell pepper chunks.  I really like sweet red bell peppers in chili.  I didn’t discover this until a few years ago.  Stir them up a bit, let them cook a little for another minute or so, but don’t let the peppers get too soft. Mushy bell peppers make me gag, but crisp bell peppers are awesome. Maybe turn up the heat and fry the peppers a little in the oily grease directly on the bottom of the pot for 30 seconds or so, just to bring out their flavor.
  8. Dump in the can of diced tomatoes. Turn the heat down again to medium low.
  9. Add the pork chunks, which you’ve already seared.  Add the bacon, which you’ve already cooked and chopped.  Give it all a good stir and a shimmy.
  10. Check out what’s going on with your nose and your eyes and your taste buds. If the characters in your pot don’t seem to be getting along well, maybe sprinkle in a little more chili powder and chipotle spice as a conversation starter.  But if everyone in the pot is getting to know each other and the party is humming along nicely, then don’t be the crude host who decides to launch a game of charades even though the party is doing really well without it.  Just let it cook.
  11. Add some finely chopped cilantro.  Let this all cook on low for 10 minutes or so.
  12. About now is time to add some liquid and let it simmer.  So put in most of the chicken broth.  Turn the heat down to a simmer. Give everything one more nice gentle stir and a goodbye kiss.
  13. Now just walk away.
  14. Yes, I said walk away. Don’t even look back.
  15. Seriously, go do something else for a while.  Walk the dog.  Read a book.  Play with your kids.  This is kind of embarrassing, but I actually started to teach myself Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” on the guitar while this chili cooked. You think I’m kidding? I’m not. I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride.
  16. I can’t believe I just admitted that Bon Jovi thing.  But the song had been in my head all day.
  17. OK, after about 45 minutes, put down the guitar and go back and check on the chili.  Taste it.  Think about what it needs.  Does it need more substance?  Then add something “dark.”  It was about this time that I poured in the last of the morning’s coffee, which was still in the pot on the counter.  I really think this helped.  Does it need more brightness?  Add some more lime juice.
  18. Oh, if you haven’t yet stirred in a pinch of sugar, do so. Recipes with tomatoes (tomato soups, chilis, tomato sauces) always need sugar, IMO.  Seriously: taste the recipe just before adding the sugar, and then again after adding the sugar.  I think you can almost immediately taste the improvement.  It doesn’t make it sweet, but it gives it what I would call a more “complete,” balanced flavor. I even added a little molasses.  I don’t know why this is, but I have found that using sugars in recipes like this keeps everything working together better.  I’m no chemist, though, and this may be a load of hoohaw.
  19. Also add a splash of vinegar, to cut any sweetness from the sugar.
  20. Let it simmer a while more.  Go out and mow the lawn.  Throw a football to your kid.  Wave at the neighbors, who don’t realize how much they are about to enjoy your tasty chili at the upcoming cook-off.
  21. Wander through the kitchen and make sure it’s all simmering nicely.  Add some more broth to keep your brew nice and liquid.
  22. Find the “Wanted Dead or Alive” video on YouTube. Chuckle at it. Man, the 80s were awesome.
  23. After another hour or so, add the beans.  Notice that I add the beans later in the process.  I like the beans to stay a little chewier, so I don’t cook them too early.  I just want them to heat and soak up flavor, not get mushy. Add any remaining broth.
  24. Stir in a big handful of coarsely chopped cilantro.  This gives it flavor and color.
  25. Wait: have I even mentioned Tabasco sauce?  No?  I love that stuff.  Throw in a few drops at various points along the way.
  26. Transfer it to a crockpot for keeping it warm at the chili cookoff.
  27. Serve in bowls.  Eat with spoons.  Enjoy with others.