Chupacabra Sunday

My Mom and Dad are big football fans, so I grew up watching the Super Bowl; Mom always made chili for supper, and we’d have friends over to watch with us. Mom’s chili is sort of your typical Americana ground beef and kidney beans affair, not at all spicy, but it tasted good and it was soul-stirringly hearty. Years later, I found out why it was so filling and thick–she used to put a stick of margarine in at the end. The thought of that much transfat, however, sends my arteries cringing in horror, so I don’t bother replicating that recipe.

Presently, however, due to the fact that I can take or leave football, and Zak doesn’t like it one iota, the two of us will forget for weeks that we even own a television, we don’t watch The Game.

So, there is no set menu for that particular Sunday even when we are aware enough to know which Sunday on which it falls.

This year, by odd chance, I got up on Super Bowl Sunday, trotted downstairs and started up a pot of chili.

Not just any chili, however.

Chupacabra Chili.

Before we go into what is Chupacrabra Chili and why the heck I bounced out of bed to make it if we are not having anyone over for Super Bowl Sunday, which we most certainly are not, let us talk about chili.

While at Johnson & Wales culinary, I had the task of helping to cook for various dorms at various times. My favorite was a grad student dorm that was located far from the main campus in downtown Providence, out in Warwick, near my apartment in seedy and unscenic Cranston. The kitchen was under the leadership of Chef Paul, a wonderful little man who was utterly laid back and unconcerned about any crisis. We never had to be yelled at, because we all liked him so much, we cooked our hearts out for him.

His teaching assistants, all students in the MA track of the culinary school, were equally laid back and fun. They were all younger than I, but were very respectful of my abilities and knowledge. Two of them were Yankee chile heads and adored spicy food, and another was a Latino who worked his heart out every day, and never ordered a student to do something that he wasn’t willing to do himself.

They discovered that not only could they give me my assignment and leave me alone and then find it finished to perfection at the time of service, they discovered that I worked very fast, and was well-versed in the art of chili making. They found out that I could make a good, fast pot of chili out of nearly any ingredients that were just sitting around in the walk-in or on the shelves. I was equally good at gumbos and stews, but since they liked chili it was usually chili they were having me make. If we were short an entree or a soup for lunch or dinner, one of them would come to me and say, “Barbara, can you make a pot of chili–we don’t care what kind.”

“How much time do I have?” was my usual reply as I reached for my knife case.

Usually it was three hours or more, but now and again, it was two hours or less. When it was a rush job, I usually utilized leftovers from the walk in and co-opted the service of Beth, my preferred working partner, the only other woman in our particular group rotation. Under my direction, the two of us could bang out pots of different kinds of chili in record time, and due to various techniques and some trickery, we usually manage to make it taste like it had cooked for hours.

Toasting the cumin and coriander seeds in a small enamelled cast iron pan. Toasting the seeds brings the essential oils to the surface and makes them more fragrant while also creating a nutty flavor.

We became known as “The Chili Queens.” Which of course made me laugh, because way back in the 1880’s, it is said that Texas Red, the ur-chili, if you will, was, if not invented, popularized by women who would cook it and sell it on the plaza down in San Antonio. These ladies, all of whom apparently overflowed with personality, and some of whom were singers, were known as Chili Queens.

I wrote down a recipe for each of the many pots of chili we made, so in my collection I have something like 10 or 12 variants from that time period. There was the classic Texas Red that convinced the TA’s I knew from chili–stewing beef, chile peppers, both fresh and dried, cumin, onion, garlic, beer and some tomatoes, with a sprinkling of cilantro at the end. No beans, of course. If you put beans in chili in Texas and call it chili, they’ll hang you. Or at least call you a Yankee and laugh at you. Beans go on the side, if you must eat them with the sacred chili at all.

And then there was the classic Americana Chili that I based on the one I grew up with, though I dispensed with the margarine thickener. While I was cooking that recipe, Chef Paul told me that it used to be common in the food service industry to thicken that dish with peanut butter–it basically acts like instant roux and the chili is so strong you cannot taste the peanut flavor. However, when waiters failed to inform those with peanut allergies of its presence in the chili, there were tragic consequences. In one case Chef Paul knew of, a woman died.

That is even more of a horrifying thought than all the margarine I had unknowingly ingested at my mother’s table for years.

Needless to say, Beth and I did not put anything remotely peanut-like in any of our chilis. Though, I will ‘fess up to using zucchini in some vegetarian versions; the bland squash really picks up and carries the chile and cumin flavors without asserting any character of its own.

Everyone’s favorite innovation was my version of a white chili made with canellini beans, poblano and jalapeno chiles. Instead of chicken, I used cubed pork shoulder. I browned the onions in bacon fat, and then at the end added leftover roasted corn cut off the cob. That was a favorite of everyone, and it became the standard chili at my house, because Zak who didn’t adore Texas Red, would slurp down two bowls of the white pork chili with gusto and come back for more.

In honor of my Jewish husband’s love of the distinctly unkosher dish, I called it “Pale Treyfe,” though a quip from my brother-in-law gave it the better name: “Sacrilicious.”

Through a twist of fate, the chili known as “Sacrilicious” became “Chupacabra Chili”– a slightly more observant Jewish friend invited me to visit and I offered to bring the house chili, though I said I could substitute lamb for the pork. Intrigued, he said, “Sure–I want to try lamb chili.”

So, I set out for Bluescreek Farms Meats in the North Market to pick up some lamb stew meat. When I got there, I saw that they had, in addition to delicious free-range organic lamb raised, some goat meat of the same quality. And I said, “I wonder what goat meat would taste like in chili?”

So, I bought some and set to finding out.

Instead of cooking the cannellini beans with a ham hock as I usually did for the treyfe version, I used the bone from a leg of lamb I had roasted earlier that week, and since I had no lager beer, I used brown ale. For chiles, I roasted some poblanos and jalapenos as I usually do, and added some chipotle en adobo to replace the smoked flavor of the ham hock. I had a cob of grilled corn left over from the same dinner with the leg of lamb, so I cut the kernels off the cob and added that, and I had some fresh Green Zebra tomatoes laying around, so they went in at the very end to add a hint of acidity and lovely chunks of bright green goodness.

It turned out to be one of the best damned pots of chili I had ever made. The lamb and goat meat were rich and strongly flavored enough to stand up to the chili heat and all the cumin and coriander seeds, while the corn added a top note of sugary sweetness mixed with the smoky depth from the grill. The tomatoes were perfect, and everyone who tasted it wanted to know what I was going to call it.

The original name was Apocalypse Chili, which was a rather heretical joking reference to the bit in the Book of Revelation about how when Judgment Day comes, “He shall separate the sheep out from the goats.” However, I decided that was a bit too likely to offend someone, and so I named it instead after Zak’s favorite cryptozoological wee wicked beastie–the one, the only Goatsucking fiend! El Chupacabra.

So, why was I making this chili today?

It is a practice run for the North Market’s second annual Chili Cook off, which is coming up on February 19. I wanted to see if I could adapt the recipe to a winter cupboard–I have no fresh corn or tomatoes available, nor do I have a leftover lamb leg bone laying around. Rather than be bold and just make a batch the day before the contest and leave it all to chance and instinct, I decided to try my adaptation first and see what I thought.

I ended up replacing the fresh tomatoes with sun dried tomatoes and will then add fresh tomatillos about twenty minutes before serving it as I simmer it to heat it up tomorrow. The grilled corn was replaced by posole; while it lacks the honeyed sweetness of corn on the cob, it has an expansive, rich corn flavor and is wonderfully chewy. And for the leftover leg bones, Cheryl at Bluescreek sold me a lamb shank, which worked admirably.

Browning the lamb shank along with the onions, garlic, spices, roasted bell peppers and jalapeno chiles.

When it was done, after a couple of hours in and out of the crock pot, I came to this conclusion–since the lamb and goat make a nice, rich brown sauce, I am going to ditch the white beans for either pintos or more exotic Anasazi beans; the posole and beans are both white and so there is no color contrast there. And the sun dried tomatoes–while flavorful, were too dark and raisin-like in appearance and texture for my taste. Instead of them, I will probably use a can of Muir Glen fire roasted tomatoes.

The mostly finished dish. I will post a picture of the completely finished dish tomorrow–it needs fresh tomatillos added as it heats up and fresh cilantro sprinkled over it before serving.

The chiles–roasted, frozen jalapenos I processed this fall, and chipotle en adobo worked admirably, especially since I paired them with frozen roasted red bell peppers. The tomatillos will add considerably to the color and texture possibilities as well as adding a sweet and sour note to the flavors. I may add a bit of frozen corn to give another color and flavor contrast.

All in all, I am pleased with Chupacabra Chili II: Culinary Bugaloo–it is extremely good, and with the changes I outlined above, will be a serious contender in the cook-off.

I have to make sure it is really good, as Zak is working right now on t-shirt designs for us to wear to the event.

More on the art tomorrow.

Goodnight, and I hope you had a Happy Chupacabra Sunday! I know that I did, that is, until my computer froze up and I lost most of this post and had to recreate it. Fun!

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