Okay, it’s time for a recipe. While I ordinarily use these as a way to get away from politics, I do sometimes make exceptions. (See the SOTU salmon recipe, which refers to President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address.) The other thing is that I volunteered for the Marathon County Democratic Party’s annual Chili Cook-off and I was looking for something catchy to name my entry. Based on the crowd and the times, “Chili with Tonette” seemed like a no-brainer, but allow me to develop the concept a little here, before we get to the meat of the matter.
Dial back to March 1, 2011. The Center for Media and Democracy reports:
“In a dramatic turn of events at the Wisconsin State Capitol today, Governor Scott Walker defied a court order to open the Capitol for normal business operations. State legislator, Representative Marc Pocan, called the move “not only unprecedented, but contempt of court as well.”
On Monday at 8:00 a.m., the Wisconsin Capitol building, which was the site of dozens of major protests in the last two weeks — including one of over 100,00 on Sunday — was virtually locked down as the Governor moved to limit protester access in advance of his scheduled budget address on Tuesday.
After untold numbers were turned away at the door Monday and told they could not speak to their legislators, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney pulled his deputies from the Capitol saying it was not their job to act as “palace guard.”
* * *
Amidst this environment of crisis, which would eventually cost two GOP state senators their jobs in recall elections, Governor Walker puts out the following message on his Twitter account:
“Had some chili w/Tonette as we watched @AmericanIdol.”
The soulless little dispatch was quickly retweeted by 61 people and we had ourselves something that was tone deaf enough to pass for a Wisconsin version of Marie Antoinette’s famous misquote, “Let them eat cake.” (The fact that her name is Tonette only gives it a little more of a ring.) We therefore immortalize this historic quote by naming our chili in its honor.
So anyway, let’s talk about the chili. Sure, I’ve made it with garden-fresh tomatoes and other “from scratch” ingredients in the past, but I have to tell you that it doesn’t seem to make enough of a difference to be worth being a pretentious purist about it. Also, I make large batches and then freeze it in quart-size freezer containers, so feel free to cut the quantity in half if you like a smaller batch or you don’t have a large enough stock pot to make it work for you. (And don’t put macaroni in your chili. It doesn’t belong in there and it pretty much destroys it for freezing, too. If you like macaroni, make it on the side and let people who have picked up that bad habit add it on their own, by the individual serving. Just remember that it isn’t chili.)
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 4 lbs. ground beef
- 2 large onions
- 28 oz. can of tomato sauce
- 29 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
- ¼ cup sugar (or a little more, to taste)
- 2 – 16 oz. cans of chili beans (NOTE: Chili beans are NOT kidney beans!)
- 2 packets of chili seasoning (I use hot)
- Chili powder
- Black pepper
- Garlic (powder and several pressed cloves)
- Cayenne pepper
- 8 oz. Velveeta (I use Mexican. Save the good cheese to grate over a steaming bowl.)
- TIME! Good chili takes at least three hours to be passable and usually more.
You’re going to need at least a 10-quart stockpot. (I’ve done it with an 8-quart, but it doesn’t leave much room to stir things.)
Open the cans of tomato sauce crushed tomatoes and beans. Pour them into your stockpot with one can of hot water from the tomato sauce can and one cup of hot water from a bean can. Cover it, put it on medium heat and start dicing your two LARGE onions (and if they’re not large enough, use more.) Stir occasionally and as soon as you bring this to a light boil, back it off to a very low simmer, which is where it will stay for the rest of the process. Sprinkle on a thin layer of chili powder and a bit of black pepper. Stir it in thoroughly. Drop in the onions as soon as they’re ready and stir them in with one of your packets of chili seasoning and a quarter cup of sugar.
Now, it’s time to brown the meat. I do it with a large, covered skillet that can handle my 4 lbs. at once. Mix in the other packet of chili seasoning with the meat and add some garlic powder. You’re going to be mixing this up frequently with a spatula, but use the cover to hold in the heat and the moisture. The spices will mix in with the liquid and flow through the meat while it browns. Having your meat add extra flavor instead of having to draw it from the other ingredients fuses things together more effectively and it makes a big difference in the finished chili. (Yes, you’ll end up with more liquid at the end of the process to pour off or strain out, unless you finish it uncovered to steam some of it away at the end.)
On the subject of draining, I like to compact the browned meat into a fine mesh colander to push out any excess liquid because I don’t want to see any grease puddles separating out in the final product. Everything in this chili is fused together, once it’s finished. (I’m showing you two pictures of the chili in process. One shows it before the onions are cooked down and the other is the finished product, which has an entirely different color, texture and flavor after three or four hours of simmering.)
Okay, so once you toss in the meat and stir it all together, you simmer and stir occasionally for the next three hours, at least. After about an hour, I dice up the Velveeta into chunks and drop them in, stirring them in about 10 minutes later, after they’ve melted down. Just keep up the stirring and simmering over low heat. The onions will cook down to near invisibility and after a couple of hours you can begin tasting and adding things like chili powder, black pepper, cayenne pepper — (and be careful with this stuff, okay?) Press a clove or two of garlic into the mix.
That’s it. It’s all a matter of taste, smell and touch as you go along. And have you ever noticed how chili is even better warmed up than it is on the first go around? Well, I usually take it to the point where it’s totally done and then park the pot to cool until the next day. By the time you get it reheated, it will have effectively added more than an hour of cooking time between the cool down and the warm-up, moving your chili up the scale from excellent to outstanding.