I have excellent news! Fall is here!
If you live in one of the northern states, you’re probably unimpressed by this. Perhaps you’re even into wintry weather already. But, here in the south, summer has a tendency to hang on with the strength of a dung beetle. Seriously, the comparison works. Trust.
We woke up to temps in the low 40s this morning, to my delight. Making today the perfect opportunity for doing one of my favorite things: Making chili, and mine has been simmering since before the sun barely peeked over the horizon this morning.
For those that do not know, I used to be a catering chef, and I’ve cooked for some pretty swanky gigs. I’m talking congresspeople, governors, collegiate football teams, television networks…I’ve made some pretty high-brow stuff in my day.
Which is perhaps why making a seemingly simple pot of chili has such appeal to me.
And while I was preparing to make today’s pot of the good stuff, I realized it isn’t unlike outlining a novel.
Hear me out.
You’ve got your story tropes and you’ve got chili tropes. (Not necessarily clichés.)
I’m sure the mere mention of story tropes caused a list to begin rattling in your head: Boy meets girl, rags to riches, orphan/misfit adventure.
Well, just as there are tropes to help guide a story, so there are to help craft the base of a pot of chili: meat, beans, peppers*, tomatoes. This also parallels with world-building.
Then, there’s the plot twist.
Personally, I don’t think chili is chili without a plot twist.
Now, I don’t necessarily add these following “plot twist” ingredients to every pot of chili I make. Sometimes I add one of them, sometimes I add multiple. It is possible I’ve never made the exact same pot of chili twice. Anyway, here are some of the oddball things I may toss into my pot: nutmeg, roasted cinnamon, coffee (either brewed or instant—never grounds), dark chocolate (I’m talking 70-80%), wine (I’d reach for a cabernet or shiraz), beer, honey, lime juice, lime zest, fire-roasted corn, okra….and maybe a few more I’m going to hold close to my vest.
The point is, I like there to be something unexpected. Something that my guests notice is different, but can’t quite pinpoint, something they discuss around the table…and then once the big reveal is made, they’re astonished. (This mostly happens when I reveal I’ve added chocolate.)
And we can’t forget about supporting characters! They need to compliment the story/chili, not distract from it.
If the chili is spicy, I like to employ my honey-butter cornbread to add balance—something every story needs, too.
If the chili is really rich, I like to offer sour cream.
One last thing to mention that is important for proper chili and writing stories: Time.
Once you’ve gotten all your ingredients together in the pot, it needs time to cook. (Not talking about just making sure the meat is done—that should have been cooked thoroughly already.) But it isn’t going to taste the same after five minutes in the pot as it will five hours later. The flavors meld. The liquid reduces, making the spices stronger. It matures.
You can come back a few hours later, taste, and realize you need to add more salt, heat, stock, or maybe even add water. (If you’ve added too much flavor, which, yes, is a thing…adding water will actually help to tone everything down and make it more palatable.) You may need a splash of vinegar, even sugar. But you won’t get the chili to perfection without giving it the proper time…much the same could be argued for story-crafting.
Now, I know my chili-is-sort-of-like-plotting-a-novel theory may be a stretch…but it was fun to think about while I was chopping stuff this morning. And, yes, making a big crockpot full of chili and baking fresh cornbread is most certainly self-care for me. Eating it will be, too.
*Back to peppers—there are so many! Don’t pigeonhole your chili into bell peppers or jalepeños alone. I suggest browsing a farmer’s market to find really interesting peppers.
Today, I used cubanelles. Poblanos are great. (Or, if you’d like, roasted ancho chili powder is another fantastic way to use poblanos in your chili—also great in brownies!) Another favorite of mine, which are my favorite to use in spicier chilis: Anaheim. I don’t like to make a pot of chili much hotter than the Anaheim pepper. If using a super hot pepper, like ghost peppers or Carolina reapers, I suggest steeping the pepper in the chili rather than chopping it up and adding it into the pot. You can achieve the heat level you want without going overboard.
A word about my cornbread:
So, I’ve been asked many times why I, someone who graduated top of her class in culinary school, use any boxed things at all, much less the cheapest on the shelf.
Answer: Because it works. I can’t speak to what it tastes like if you follow the recipe on the back of the box to the letter, but it does make an excellent jumping off point for experimenting with flavors. Also, you’d be surprised at the uses many chefs have for boxed items like this. Especially potato flakes.
If you try the recipe above, please note the dish I use is a family heirloom piece of Corningware, so metal pans may require slightly less time. And I mean it about allowing it to cool…cutting it (or any baked good, really) will allow too much steam to escape and you’ll wind up with dry cornbread.
Anyway, that’s all I have for you today. I have chili and cornbread to…sample. Yep. Totally not going to eat three bowls in a row.
Happy writing, reading, and bon appetit!