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Winter = Chili

In the winter months, a steaming bowl of one sort or another is often the best way to keep yourself full and warm. Chili is a classic and each region has its own distinct style. In many cases, chili seems to be one of those dishes that people are leery about experimenting with or branching away from their  standard. In the Southeastern U.S., where I’m from, chili is almost always beef, tomato sauce, red or black beans, some garlic powder, onion powder, and chili powder served with some shredded cheddar cheese on top. It’s  generally quite good and filling but a bit dull after awhile. Some years ago, I had the pleasure of judging a chili contest in southern Virginia, and the chilies ranged from very good to pretty awful. What struck me the most was that the most deviant or innovative recipe simply added some fresh orange juice to the typical mix. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big proponent of the power of simplicity in cooking, but I think the combination of meat, beans, and sauce lends itself to a bit more creativity.

My goal in the test kitchen was to attack traditional chili with creativity and ramped-up spices. You see, lately I have been taking dishes from where I grew up and combining them with elements of other ethnic and regional cuisines. A few weeks back, I experimented with a tomato-based barbeque sauce infused with black tea and chai spices. Surprisingly, the sauce was a great success, so I decided to try concocting a Chai Chili.

Some of the flavors of chai are regularly paired with beef, so I felt that it could work. Cinnamon, for example, is used commonly in Mexican and Southwestern cuisines to flavor beef.  I chose to keep the spice mix simple as to avoid overpowering the wonderful play between beef, mushroom, beans, and tomato. The fusion of Indian and Southern flavors seemed a bit too strange at first, but I recalled a red bean dahl I’d had once, and I knew this would work.

Ingredients

1/4 lb 80/20 ground chuck

1/4 medium sweet onion

3 cloves garlic

12 oz canned tomato

16 oz red beans

8 oz black beans

1 cup beef broth

1 tsp cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp black pepper

2 1/2 tsp chili powder

1 beef boullion cube

1 bag Chai-flavored tea (Stash or Good Earth are my preferred brands)

2 tsp coarse sea salt, to taste

6-10 mushrooms, quartered (avoid those terrible button mushrooms)

1 Tbsp olive oil OR butter

Method

Brunoise the garlic and onion. Quarter the mushrooms and set aside. Add the oil/butter to a medium pot and heat to medium heat. Sweat the garlic and onion, and once the onion is clear, add the beef. Season the beef while it is cooking and stir until it is lightly browned.

At this point, add the tomato and reduce the heat to low. In a small sauce pot bring the broth to a boil, add the bag of tea, and remove the pot from the heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Add the stock to the chili pot, and toss in a boullion cube and the vanilla. Raise the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the beans and mushrooms and reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for 20-30 minutes or until the beans and mushrooms are tender. Serve and enjoy. The recipe should make 3-4 bowls.

Judging the Chili

The chili turned out even better than I had expected! It was warm with a hint of spice and reminded me of the chili I ate growing up and the great bowls of curry and red beans I’ve been devouring for the last few years. The vanilla added a lot in the background without taking over the dish. Generally, I was pleased with the results and everyone in the kitchen was surprised and pleased when I told them about the special twist.

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Wet Ingredients

2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp olive oil

Dry Ingredients

1/4 cup white rice
1/4 cup lentils
2 cups veggie stock
4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup chopped carrot
1/8 sliced red onion

handful green onion (finely chopped)
Gouda

Spices

1 tsp. paprika
cayenne
oregano
sea salt
fresh ground black pepper

Process

Combine the wet ingredients and a pinch of sea salt in a medium sauce pan and heat to medium. Once the honey dissolves add the red onion, garlic, and carrot.  Bring the soup to a a slow rolling boil for 2-3 minutes, and add the rest of the spices. I would take it easy on the oregano, more than a dash or two will over accentuate the lemon. 1 tsp. of paprika will add color and a smokey taste that pairs well with the Gouda used to finish the soup. As for the cayenne, use your own discretion, I prefer a lot, but start slow or you’ll ruin your whole meal. A few more minutes will give the onion and carrot some time to soften and release their flavor into the soup. At this point it is time to add the lentils and rice. Most white rice has about the same cook time as lentils, which is one reason why I don’t use brown rice. Simmer on med-low for 15 minutes or until the rice is cooked.  When you are ready to serve the soup add the green onions and grated Gouda to each bowl and serve.

Spicy lentil soup is a great 3 season lunch or dinner. The quick prep time, under 30 minutes, gives you plenty of extra time to spend with the person you’re cooking for. As an added bonus lentils are full of protein which is great for vegetarians, and for those of use who love meat, this soup pairs well with a nice chorizo sandwhich. If you enjoy wine with lunch, I would reccomend a semi dry tempranillo like La Vendimia. The fruity notes of this variety of wine are excellent with any mild to moderately spicy dish.