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If chili be the food of love, play on!

Jennifer King Ferreira • Feb 6, 2019 at 11:00 AM

With Old Man Winter hanging out for a few more weeks and Cupid waiting to take aim on Valentine’s Day, we need to acknowledge that love is in the air. What a perfect time to pull out that chili pot and stir up some of that passion with a hearty chili for a cold winter’s night.

Every year, countless advertisements beckon me to enter chili cook-offs. And every year, I clip them out, acknowledging that “this will be the year that I will get down to business and enter one of my creations.” Of course, I seem to come up with scores of reasons that the time is just not right and a promise to myself that I will be ready “next year.” I have tried to figure out why I can’t bite the hot pepper and whip up a big crock of chili for one of these contests. There must be a meaty explanation for the hesitation of this chili-maker extraordinaire? Surely, I don’t abandon my plan because I am afraid that the blue ribbon might not wave over my chili pot?

I grew up thinking that chili was just that orange-red, ground-up concoction that was ladled on top of a hot dog at a newsstand or ball game. I sort of lumped it in the same category as the sloppy joe my mother used to fix on Sunday nights — not on the top of my “appealing foods” list.

It wasn’t until junior high days that I realized another kind of chili loomed out there in the far reaches of the culinary world. I daresay, my mom and her friends had been poring over those beauty parlor magazines and came across this exotic savory one-dish meal called chili con carne. As the “mom chat” began to center on who had the best chili recipe in town, our Sunday night sloppy joes were quickly replaced with this spicy, flavorful chili bowl. I likened my mom and her friends to the Chili Queens of San Antonio, who were the first to introduce the dish. For generations, these dedicated women cooked chili over open fires in the town plazas to feed hungry cowhands and soldiers. Although open fires were not allowed in the streets of Kingsport, I daresay, the reigning Kingsport Chili Queens produced enough chili to feed several neighborhoods!

According to Mom, Harry James, a big band leader from her college years, nailed it when he said, “Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili.” She took this to heart. I can still hear her calling after us as we trudged down the hill with our sleds, “A good day for chili con carne!” We always knew we would return home to find a house full of friends and neighbors who had been enticed to share her never-ending chili pot.

Mom’s recipe was very basic with whole canned tomatoes, tomato paste, ground beef, onion, dark kidney beans, chili powder and of course, the additive of the century, Campbell’s tomato soup. Her chili was served up in brown crockery bowls with saltine crackers crumbled on top. If you felt adventurous, you might add some grated cheddar. Honestly, I have to say there was nothing like it to lift your spirits on a cold, snowy night.

For many years, I used my mom’s recipe and as time went on added new toppings such as sour cream, avocado, green peppers, crumbled tostados and cilantro. This tried-and-true bowl of comfort has remained a chili basic in my recipe box. However, every winter, I get in the experimental mode and take to the kitchen to create new twists and turns. Tofu, Guinness stout, black coffee, sriracha sauce, bacon, chocolate — I have tried them all and learned not to be afraid to incorporate unusual ingredients in your quest for that blue-ribbon winner! My family can attest that I have produced some stunners and some absolute losers during my long winter’s nights.

I want to share three of my favorite recipes, which were all created with lots of love by passionate cooks! I won’t be going to that chili cook-off this year, but how about I see you next year? In the meantime, pull out your chili pot and stir up some love of your own this winter.

Chicken Chile with Salsa Verde Pesto

One of my most recent favorite creations sounds a bit out of the box, but it is total comfort food that combines chicken, healthy veggies and traditional chili spices with the wonderful flavor of Italian pesto with a Southwest twist!

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 lb. ground lean chicken

2 cups of diced chicken tenders

1 medium yellow onion, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced

1 yellow pepper, chopped

1½ cups grated carrot

1½ cups celery, finely diced

1 large clove garlic, minced

3 14½ oz.  cans of basil, garlic diced tomatoes

1/2 cup chicken broth

1½ tsp. oregano

2 tsp. ground cumin

2 Tbsp. dried basil

½ tsp. cayenne pepper ground

2 Tbsp. chili powder or to taste

1 whole lime, juiced

1 4 oz. can fire-roasted green chili peppers, chopped

1 15½ oz. can of cannellini beans, drained

Sour cream

Sauté ground chicken and diced chicken tenders in olive oil in large pan. When almost cooked, add diced onion, jalapeno, yellow pepper, carrot, celery and garlic and continue to cook, stirring to keep from sticking, until veggies are partially cooked.

To pot add: Chicken broth, canned tomatoes, green chilis, spices and lime juice. Cook on medium low for 15 minutes, stirring as needed. Cover and continue cooking for another 25 to 30 minutes, adding more chicken broth if desired.

Adjust seasonings to taste and add cannellini beans and cook on low for five to 10 more minutes.

Put in individual bowls and top with Salsa Verde Pesto, sour cream and fresh basil sprig.

Salsa Verde Pesto

2 cups of loosely packed fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 clove of garlic

1/2 cup of walnuts

3/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup tomatillo salsa verde

Combine first five ingredients in food processor, pulsing until well mixed. Add salsa verde slowly and blend.

Me & K’s Red Southwest Chili

My friend Melissa from Me and K’s knows her heat. Melissa’s chili cooking classes were the best! She would send her recipes with ingredient lists only and then during the class, she would dictate how much of each to add as she was cooking. She loved to say “always tweak the heat” to suit your taste, and I have found that to be true. Don’t overseason with spices or hot peppers, just do it slowly until you hit the right mark. If you want the real thing, you can find Me & K’s Food Truck along with all of their fresh, fabulous fare at 4307 N. Roan St., Suite 23, in Johnson City.

2 large onions, chopped

1 green and 1 red tomato, cored, seeded, chopped

3 large cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. red pepper flakes

1 jalapeno, minced

1/4 cup chili powder or to taste

1 Tbsp. ground cumin

1 Tbsp. dried oregano

1/2 tsp. dried basil

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

1½ lbs. hamburger meat

1 small steak

1 can whole tomatoes, including liquid

1 can fire-roasted tomatoes

1 can diced tomatoes

1½ cups beef broth

1 can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1 can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 can pinto beans

3 limes, squeezed

Olive oil

Toppings: Tortilla chips, chipotle sour cream, Mexican four-cheese blend, chopped red onions, diced avocado, minced cilantro, lime wedge.

In medium saucepan, heat hamburger meat on medium high until slightly brown. Drain off excess fat and set aside. In same pan on medium heat, add steak, pour olive oil on top and turn over, heating meat until pink inside. Take out of pan and let rest three minutes. Cut into medium bite-sized pieces. 

To chili pot add: Diced jalapeno, chopped onion, tomato paste, 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Turn heat to medium high and add hamburger meat, working with wooden spoons until bite-sized pieces. Add steak pieces and chopped bell peppers. Turn heat down to medium and add broth, canned tomatoes and all dry spices and blend well. 

Add 3 cups of water and stir. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30 to 35 minutes and taste to ensure desired heat level. Add beans during last 10 minutes of cooking. 

Ladle into bowls, garnish with fresh cilantro and preferred toppings. Last, add fresh squeezed lime juice. Enjoy!

Silver Palate Vegetarian Chili

Some of my favorite cookbooks from the early ‘80s are the Silver Palate Cookbooks. I have never tried a recipe from any of these cookbooks that wasn’t outstanding, and their Vegetarian Chili remains my favorite meatless chili. Some people have substituted zucchini for the eggplant, but I think the eggplant makes a rich, filling dish with a unique flavor.

1 medium eggplant (unpeeled), 1/2-inch cubes

1Tbsp. coarse Kosher salt

3/4 cup olive oil (or as needed)

2 medium yellow onions, 1/4-inch dice

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 large green bell peppers, 1/4-inch dice

1 35 oz. can Italian plum tomatoes

1½ pounds fresh ripe Italian plum tomatoes, 1-inch cubes

2 Tbsp. chili powder

1 Tbsp. ground cumin

1 Tbsp. dried oregano

1 Tbsp. dried basil

2 tsp. black pepper, freshly ground

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. fennel seeds

1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped fresh

1 cup canned dark red kidney beans, drained

1 cup canned garbanzo beans (chick-peas), drained

1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Place the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with the coarse salt. Let stand for 1 hour. Pat dry with paper towels.

 Heat 1/2 cup of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant and sauté until almost tender, adding a bit more oil if necessary. Remove the eggplant to a casserole or Dutch oven. 

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup oil in the same skillet over low heat. Add the onions, garlic and green peppers and sauté just until softened, about 10 minutes. Add to the casserole with any oil. 

Place the casserole over low heat and add the canned tomatoes with their liquid, fresh tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, oregano, basil, pepper, salt, fennel and parsley. Cook uncovered, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes.

Stir in the kidney beans, chick-peas, dill and lemon juice and cook for another 15 minutes. The eggplant peel should be tender. Stir well and taste and adjust seasonings. 

Serve immediately with brown rice and lots of shredded Cheddar cheese.

Jennifer King Ferreira grew up in Kingsport, where she received her first cooking experiences from her grandmother, Genevieve Shivell. She is the past owner of the Abingdon General Store and Plum Alley Eatery, a gourmet store and restaurant in Abingdon, Va., and is the former director of the Cooking Along the Crooked Road Culinary Program.